Source: Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, NYU School of Law
The Everyone Counts! initiative was launched in the fall of 2020 with a firm commitment to a simple principle: the digital transformation of the state can only qualify as a success if everyone’s human rights are respected. Nowhere is this more urgent than in the context of so-called digital ID systems.
By Christiaan van Veen and Katelyn Cioffi
Research, litigation and broader advocacy on digital ID in countries like India and Kenya has already revealed the dangers of exclusion from digital ID for ethnic minority groups and for people living in poverty. However, a significant gap still exists between the magnitude of the human rights risks involved and the urgency of research and action on digital ID in many countries. Despite their active promotion and use by governments, international organizations and the private, in many cases we simply do not know how these digital ID systems lead to social exclusion and human rights violations, especially for the poorest and most marginalized.
Therefore, the Everyone Counts! initiative aims to engage in both research and action to address social exclusion and related human rights violations that are facilitated by government-sponsored digital ID systems.
Does the emperor have new clothes? The yawning evidence gap on digital ID
The common narrative behind the rush towards digital ID systems, especially in the Global South, is by now familiar: “As many as 1 billion people across the world do not have basic proof of identity, which is essential for protecting their rights and enabling access to services and opportunities.” Digital ID is presented as a key solution to this problem, while simultaneously promising lower income countries the opportunity to “leapfrog” years of development via digital systems that assist in “improving governance and service delivery, increasing financial inclusion, reducing gender inequalities by empowering women and girls, and increasing access to health services and social safety nets for the poor.”
This perspective, for which the World Bank and its Identification for Development (ID4D) Initiative have become the official “anchor” internationally, presents digital ID systems as a force for good. The Bank, acknowledges that exclusionary issues may arise, but is confident that such issues may be overcome through good intentions and safeguards. Digging underneath the surface of these confident assertions, however, one finds that there appears to be remarkably little research into the overall impact of digital ID systems on social exclusion and a range of related human rights. For instance, after entering the digital ID space in 2014, publishing prolifically, and guiding billions of development dollars into furthering this agenda, the World Bank’s ID4D team concedes in its 2020 Annual Report that “given that this topic is relatively new to the development agenda, empirical research that rigorously evaluates the impact of ID systems on development outcomes and the effectiveness of strategies to mitigate risks has been limited.” In other words, despite warning signs from several countries around the world, including chilling stories of people who have died because they were shut out of biometric ID systems, the digital ID agenda moves full steam ahead without full understanding of its exclusionary potential.