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Photo: iStock/ Wenjie Dong

Digital ID: Where Do We Go From Here?

– The Engine Room

This blog from Zara Rahman at The Engine Room considers the intersections between digital identity and social justice, exploring the potential of digital ID systems as agents of positive social change

In this blog, Zara Rahman argues for the importance of a constructive approach to the digital identity discussion, focussed on the constructive ways in which advocates can drive ID systems towards civic good.

Noting that “It’s far easier to critique than it is to construct,” Rahman calls on civil society advocates to suggest viable ways in which ID systems can support social justice. She continues:

"While we might be accurate in our critiques, pushing for social justice-respecting systems means we have to take it further than just that. If we want to solve these problems in an equitable and justice-oriented way, we need to use our skills to suggest viable alternatives alongside our critiques. In practice, that’s often far harder than imagined, given real-world constraints."

Looking to the broader role of civil society organisations in the design and roll out of ID systems, Rahman highlights the importance of knowledge sharing and advocacy work as a means of shaping said systems for social good. Conversely, the piece considers the ways in which digital ID systems can conflict with the interests of civil society. Rahman notes that:

“As with many technological systems, understanding ID systems and their consequences comes down to a question of power. Who has the power to issue an identity, an entry in an ID system, or an ID card? Who recognises that card as valid, and who has the power to remove that card? Who has the power to access that database, to make changes, to share it with others? And why is this system being built: whose interests are being represented?”

Whilst there are circumstances in which digital ID systems may benefit an undemocratic, autocratic state, there are also circumstances in which those same systems could be used as a tool for social justice. Rahman argues that any conversation around digital ID must recognise this inherent nuance and incorporate the skills and perspectives of civil society advocates.

Ultimately, she concludes, civil society advocates must actively participate in the conversation that is shaping digital ID, providing solutions rather than pure critiques. It is by putting forwards constructive insights and ideas, and by sharing their skills with the ID community, that advocates can best support good ID for all.

Identification systems, as a concept, are not necessarily ‘bad’ – nor are they inherently ‘good’. They’re an infrastructure that can be used and misused for various purposes. As I’ve highlighted, we need to get better at identifying and understanding use cases, and suggesting what we want and what we don’t

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