New report: Digital IDs rooted in justice

Teresa Perosa

Report Downloads

  • Digital IDs rooted in justice: lived experiences and civil society advocacy towards better systems [English pdf] [Urdu pdf]
  • Identitas Digital Yang Berkeadilan: Pengalaman nyata dan advokasi masyarakat sipil menuju sistem yang disempurnakan [Bahasa pdf]

Digital ID systems can act as gatekeepers for marginalised communities’ ability to access and realise their rights – and most of the time, such systems are developed and implemented without any participation or input from civil society or the communities most significantly affected by such schemes. This severely compromises the systems’ ability to serve these populations properly.

As more countries look towards implementing digital ID systems (such as Mexico and Sri Lanka, among many others), they risk replicating the same mistakes.

Last year, we saw how biometric-based digital ID schemes can bring potentially devastating consequences for entire populations. In Afghanistan, the Taliban took charge of biometric databases left behind by the US forces, possibly endangering thousands of people who worked with the US during the 20-year occupation. In Bangladesh, biometric data collected by UNHCR from Rohingya refugees was shared with the Myanmar government – that is, those responsible for their genocide and displacement in the first place. In Pakistan, stories of thousands of people rendered effectively stateless after their digital ID card was arbitrarily cancelled emerged, showing how these systems can be weaponised by state power.

With all this in mind, in 2021 The Engine Room coordinated a research project investigating civil society advocacy on and around digital ID systems across the globe, supported by Open Society Foundations and in partnership with ELSAM in Indonesia and Pollicy in Uganda. The research looked at how organised civil society actors are seeking to shape the design, implementation, and oversight of digital ID systems so as to eliminate harms to vulnerable populations. With the goal of understanding how justice-based systems might be achieved, we analysed existing digital ID advocacy strategies in four countries – Indonesia, Jamaica, Pakistan, and Uganda.

Many learnings emerged from this research, and it is worth highlighting the following:

  • Many digital ID systems are shrouded in secrecy and in need of myth-busting. Digital ID systems are complex and often lack transparency, and inaccurate claims are often made regarding what digital ID systems can and can’t do – sometimes perpetuated by governments themselves. If civil society organisations are to advocate successfully for changes to systems, they must first understand the existing systems.
  • Civil society is currently driven to act reactively, rather than proactively. Groups find themselves pushing for change within problematic proposals and systems, rather than being able to proactively advocate for a system that could meet the needs their communities actually face.
  • Large international organisations are playing a key role in instigating and shaping advocacy. While they can provide valuable assistance to local civil society organisations in helping them to articulate concerns and organise activities, it can be tricky to navigate contexts where the international and local organisations have different ideas. If the international organisations lack members with knowledge of the local context, or fail to include such individuals in their processes, they risk orienting their advocacy work towards targets that do not fit with local organisations’ actual priorities.
  • Litigation has been a valuable resource across all contexts researched, whether focused on specific aspects of a system or seeking to impede the overall implementation of a system.
  • Engaging with digital ID systems’ technical specifications is often considered by grassroots organisations as being out of the scope of digital ID advocacy. We observe relatively little advocacy by grassroots social justice organisations that focuses on the technical elements of digital ID; this fact is probably attributable to the prevailing lack of transparency, along with the relatively high degree of technical sophistication needed to understand the options available and the likely ramifications of such details.

We’re excited to share our full findings and invite you to engage with us!


In order to share our learnings with civil society organisations, activists and funders, we’ll be hosting two community calls on January 26th. In both these calls we’ll present our findings, hear from researchers involved in the project, and facilitate a discussion about digital identity and potential advocacy strategies.

Anyone with an interest in the topic is welcome – we’d love you to join us! Please register for your preferred time-slot via the sign-up links below.

  • Session 1: Jan 26, 15:30-16:30 IST/ 11:00-12:00 CET/ 5:00-6:00 EST: Registration link
    In this session, we’ll hear from researchers Alia Yofira and Miftah Fadhli (ELSAM, Indonesia), and Amna Khan (Pakistan). The call will be held in English.
  • Session 2: Jan 26, 19:30-20:30 IST/ 15:00-16:00 CET / 9:00-10:00 EST: Registration link
    In this session, we’ll hear from researchers Bonnita Nyamwire (Pollicy, Uganda) and Stacey-Ann Wilson (Jamaica). The call will be held in English.


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