Our Perspectives

Harnessing digital technology for legal identity

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Woman are more likely to lack legal identity, which can prevent them from accessing services or exercising rights, like voting. Photo: Prashanth Vishwanathan/UNDP India

An estimated 1.5 billion people in the world today lack “legal identity”, meaning they do not have access to identification documents such as birth certificates, national ID cards or passports. In short, they cannot prove who they are.

Lack of legal identity often results in limited access to basic public services such as education and healthcare, but it also creates a huge obstacle to economic empowerment. People without official identification often struggle to access financial services, such as opening a bank account or obtaining financial benefits. The most affected are marginalized societal groups, such as women and children, indigenous people and ethnic, linguistic or sexual minorities. 

From paper based to biometric systems 

As a means to tackle this global identity gap, numerous countries have started to introduce comprehensive national identity schemes, often known as a “national identity register” or “national population register.” These usually encompass gathering some form of biometric data from citizens, such as iris or fingerprint scans.

The increased capture, enrolment and use of biometric data via technologies such as automated fingerprint information systems and facial recognition systems is just one of the complex policy and legal issues that such identity management systems have created on both the national and global levels. Another is need to protect personal data, particularly where interoperability of different state registers of the population such as the social security register or driving license register is facilitated by such systems. Most controversial is the need to balance legitimate state security concerns against the right to privacy of citizens, residents and visitors on the territory of any UN Member State.

In the context of the increasing use of high-technology, biometrically-enhanced national identity registers and accompanying national ID card systems, development practitioners and policy makers have emphasized the need to provide guidance on the design and rollout of such systems. The introduction of these systems, and the accompanying policy issues, are taking place in an environment where technology is moving far faster than the policy community has been able to keep up.

A principled approach

The recent launch of the ‘Principles on Identification for Sustainable Development – Towards The Digital Age’ is a milestone in policy making on registration of populations. The report is a result of a two-year process facilitated by the World Bank’s ‘ID4Development’ programme. UNDP actively supported this important initiative, which is closely linked to Sustainable Development Goal 16, which focuses on peace, justice and strong institutions. Target 16.9 calls for “legal identity for all, including birth registration, by 2030.”

UNDP_MLW_NRIS_Mass RegistrationUNDP Malawi mobilized US$50 million to help the Government design and implement the new National Registration and Identification System. Photo: UNDP Malawi

In an environment where UN partners such as UNICEF (birth registration) and UNFPA (demography, census, etc.) are engaged in population registration but rather specific to their respective mandates, there are opportunities for UNDP to offer assistance to national governments and to coordinate the UN Country Teams in envisaging and designing elements of holistic birth-to-death digital identity management systems

A small but increasing number of UNDP Country Offices such as Tajikistan and Sierra Leone are already working in the area of SDG Target 16.9. Most notably, our Malawi Country Office has successfully mobilized about US$50 million to assist the Government in the design, procurement and rollout of the new National Registration and Identification System, launched in October 2016 by President Mutharika.

At UNDP, we’re increasingly engaging with other agency colleagues, as well as the Statistics Division of UNDESA (the UN system leader on civil registration and vital statistics matters), the World Bank’s ‘ID4Development’ programme and key private sector initiatives such as ID4Africa. We’re keen to stay abreast of policy developments and lessons learned in this fundamental area of governance that will only grow in importance as  modern life becomes ever more “digitized”.

UNHCR, UNICEF and the UN Economic Commission for Africa have joined UNDP in endorsing this initial version of the Principles. It represents the first major effort of the international development community to set basic standards and guidelines around SDG Target 16.9 for the management and protection of individuals’ digital identity.

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