Reimagining digital ID systems rooted in justice

Teresa Perosa

In 2019, The Engine Room conducted a comprehensive research project to highlight lived experiences with digital identification (ID) systems among mostly marginalised communities in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Thailand. By documenting these experiences and sharing critiques of digital ID systems–which deeply impact the ability of individuals to assert their rights–we hoped to highlight often-ignored issues that must be considered by those in power.  

Since then, digitisation of states and of identification systems has increased, a phenomenon accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic. In Brazil, for instance, the implementation of a centralised national citizen database–when the country’s General Data Protection Law (LGPD) has not been meaningfully implemented and the data of over 200 million citizens has suffered a massive leak–inspires worry from civil society actors, given that their voices and perspectives have not been considered as part of the process. In Peru, where the implementation of a digital ID system is taking place, civil society organisations are calling for more accountability. In Lebanon, where the use of biometric data is growing, local organisations are concerned about potential surveillance and increased civic exclusion

As digital ID systems are being rolled out across the globe, how can we make sure that civil society in general and the people most affected by such frameworks especially are part of their crafting?

With this question in mind, we are excited to start a new project with Open Society Foundations to reimagine what digital ID systems rooted in justice can look like. We seek to build on our previous work by exploring the specific role that diverse civil society actors could play in working toward a rights-respecting, locally relevant, justice-oriented approach to digital ID and by providing actionable advice to activists and their funders on how to engage with the issue effectively. 

Crafting a better future for digital ID

In our previous research, we observed that working on digital ID means working across typically siloed spaces and sectors. Digital identification is a cross-cutting issue that touches a multitude of areas, within both the broader human rights and social justice spaces. While the digital rights sector has been quick to recognise that digital ID intersects with their areas of focus, other civil society actors and social justice groups have not. Our research also showed that marginalised communities in particular have been harmed by digital ID systems that are not designed to meet their needs and protect their rights.

Our goal is to imagine and craft a future, alongside civil societies across different contexts, in which digital ID systems prioritise the needs and interests of these historically oppressed and excluded groups. If digital ID systems are here to stay, they should then be people-centric, developed and shaped with and by these actors.

Some of the key questions that will be guiding us through this process are:

  • How have civil society actors engaged meaningfully with digital ID systems across different contexts (e.g. advocacy campaigns, protests, strategic litigation, etc)?
  • What could a digital ID system grounded in justice and human rights look like?
  • How can funders support meaningful advocacy around digital ID?

As with our previous digital ID work, we will be conducting research in partnership with local researchers and actors in the focus countries, a process that will be informed by desk research and engagement with the communities of which The Engine Room is a part.

So, we’d love to hear from you.

Are you involved in advocacy around digital ID in your community? Do you want to learn more about what is happening in this space and how it intersects with the work you do? Do you have any suggestions on which countries and communities we should be focusing on? Shoot me an email at teresa[at]theengineroom.org.

You are also invited to participate in the community call we will be hosting on February 25 at 9 am EST/CET. We want these conversations to inform the focus of the project as well as bring together civil society working on digital ID across the globe. To participate, write to teresa [at] theengineroom.org with your name and affiliation.

Image by Immo Wegmann via Unsplash.

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