ID Systems

What Is The Problem

There is a huge pressure towards identifying people in more and more ways, and with more data gathered about individuals. The pressure comes from nation states, as they introduce giant schemes, often deploying biometrics. It also comes from private companies, as they attempt to identify us with or without our knowledge to track our movements and profile our behaviour. The pressure comes from the international community as well, where ID schemes are considered a developmental goal in itself, often meeting the needs of donors rather than people.

At the heart of this lies the question: why do you need this proposed identity system, and why do you need it at a particular moment for a particular transaction? Proponents' failure to answer this question results in the expansion of the uses of identity across various aspects of our lives, not in the interests of the individual but in the interests of the organisation seeking to identify. So these systems fail, and often place the most vulnerable at risk. An individual fails to meet strenuous Know Your Customer requirements to open a bank account, or a biometric failure means that they can't get their government benefits anyway. It is essential to see the broader context in which an identity system is working, in order to see if identity is truly empowering or is simply putting a barrier in the way of someone exercising their rights.

The root problem is that there is a confusion between key concepts in this field, which leaves people open to abuse. There is a confusion between the need to identify an individual (for example, by checking an ID card), and the need to see if someone has a particular entitlement (for example, if they are allowed to receive a benefit). Whereas in the past this may have been demonstrated by flashing a form of identification to an authority figure, nowadays data about the receipient is often stored, processed. Names and numbers are recorded, logs are kept. The drive for identification thus becomes a generator of data about a person, linking together disparate aspects of their lives under a single identity. 

An individual's identity is deeply personal, and protecting that identity is at the heart of the individual's dignity and autonomy, that form the basis of all human rights. Yet it also pertains to broader concepts of the groups to which they belong, which means that an identity system relates to fundamental questions of belonging. These are frequently complex, difficult questions - who counts as a member of a nation? - but an ID system presents a simplistic solution and cuts the gordian knot of identity. This leaves populations who live near borders, or who are migrants, or who are excluded, further isolated from the resources of the state and the market. Thus the modern use of identification can serve to deepen exclusion.