Exclusion by design: how national ID systems make social protection inaccessible to vulnerable populations
Source: Privacy International
Governments around the world are increasingly making registration in national ID systems mandatory for populations to access social benefits, healthcare services, and other forms of state support. By virtue of their design, these systems inevitably exclude certain population groups from obtaining an ID and hence from accessing essential resources to which they are entitled.
In many countries, access to social protection (such as welfare programmes or healthcare) is made conditional on producing a form of identification (“ID”). But obtaining a recognised and accurate ID is often a process riddled with discriminatory designs, bureaucracy and technical failures that prevent individuals from accessing the services they are entitled to. Even when people eventually get an ID, it might not accurately reflect who they are, leaving individuals with unique sets of risks and concerns. In a world where an estimated 1.1 billion people have no legal identity, making access to social benefits and healthcare dependent on being registered in a national database, producing an ID card or providing biometrics is excluding a large – often the most vulnerable – portion of the population from vital resources.
Social protection programmes can be broadly understood as government support for individuals to meet basic human needs, protecting citizens from the “economic risks and insecurities of life”. They range from ensuring all children are properly nourished every day through the provision of free school meals, to ensuring equality of all people in health by financing healthcare for all. Provision of such support has come to be considered a fundamental responsibility of modern democratic governments, and a key measure of development.
To be effective and serve their universal aims, such programmes must be accessible to all without discrimination. However, a growing number of programmes require their beneficiaries to produce a form of IDin order to unlock access – a requirement that invariably reduces or denies access to welfare to certain parts of the population. This can be for a variety of reasons, almost all of which come down to the fact that some categories of individuals cannot obtain a piece of ID in the first place: specific marginalised groups are by default or by design excluded from ID access, either because distribution logistics fail or technical features of the system make certain requirements impossible to evidence for some. For example, ID relying on biometrics may inevitably exclude the elderly and manual workers, whose fingerprints fade over time.
This is an overview of the trends we and our partners have observed across the globe, and we thank the Center for Internet and Society, KELIN and Unwanted Witness, for their contributions to this piece. What this analysis demonstrates is that despite all the claims for universality made by proponents of digital identity, the way ID systems are designed and implemented inevitably exclude some people from access to identity credentials, and those who cannot use their identity credentials are denied access to goods and services. The growing trend of governments making access to social protection conditional upon the provision of ID is thereby systematically ostracising certain types of individuals or groups and compounding existing discriminations.
1. Discrimination against specific groups: ID vetting for minorities in Kenya
2. Logistical failure: delays and errors in Uganda’s National Identity Card system (“Ndaga Muntu”)
3. Technical exclusion: ubiquitous linking of India’s Aadhaar card excludes those physically unable to provide biometrics
4. Creating barriers to accessing essential care: ID as a pre-requisite to accessing Covid vaccination