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What Is Good ID?

Good ID Awards Community Champion Tom Fisher shares his thoughts on what constitutes good ID

When we’re looking at what makes “Good ID”, there is an obvious and simple answer: it depends. It shouldn’t need saying that the solution to a problem depends on a clear statement on what that problem is. Unfortunately, in our current identity landscape, the key actors are not articulating the problem that a supposed ID solution is supposed to solve. And that has serious consequences for human rights, data protection, and the identity industry.

Identity systems of any kind have serious implications for human rights, including the right to privacy. Anyone who tells you differently is pulling the wool over your eyes, and probably selling something. There’s the risks of exclusion, of exploitation, of surveillance. That means that there has to be a clear, legitimate purpose for the deployment of the system – and its use in a particular context. Only with that information can an assessment be made that the impact on human rights is necessary and proportionate to achieving that aim, or indeed whether ID is going to solve that particular problem at all. Similar concepts exist in data protection law.

The problem is, an idea has arisen that the goal of an ID system is the ID system itself. Ideas of a ‘foundational’ identity – a purposeless ID system – are common amongst some powerful actors. The problem here is that this is based on a tautology: the purpose of the ID system is to have an ID system. And that can’t hold water, as it could be used to justify ANY government policy or intervention.

So this leads to the worrying development in the field, where identity is described as a human right. (Do people have a different version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights than the one I have? Because I haven’t managed to find any reference to ID in it; there’s no mention of the right to be on a giant biometric database, nor a single mention of blockchain, as far as I can see.) For sure, in many contexts having an ID is key to accessing other rights: some of my proudest work has been alongside organizations that are fighting to get the most marginalized populations ID documents. Yet that is not to say that having these ID documents is a fundamental human right in itself.

The danger of thinking of identity as a right is that it creates the idea that identity is an end in itself; that the goal of the identity system is the creation of an identity system

Perhaps the big problem in this sector is: everyone in the sector is selling something. The companies are trying to sell a product, of course, or trying to get people to download their app. Others are flogging an idea, a fierce adherence to blockchain as the solution to all of the world’s problems. Some are multinational development banks selling the need for identity around the globe; others are massive funding bodies, tying identities to ‘financial inclusion’ or even essential medical interventions.

And like any marketplace, everyone’s shouting about why their version of digital identity is better: not at all like all the other ones, invading people’s privacy and excluding vulnerable people! This was most evident in the early days of the pandemic: people looked at this unique, unprecedented event in the digital era, and decided that the ideal solution was the exact form of digital identity they’d been promoting before the pandemic began. What are the chances of that?

But I have to admit, I am kind of envious of the people selling the idea of ID: to reduce all the complex policy problems of this world to one, simple solution; I’ll admit that has an appeal. It’s just a shame it’s never the case that ‘one big idea’ will solve the world’s problems. So, as we move forward, I’d wish for a more honest conversation surrounding ID, its limitations and its drawbacks.