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Worries that 'digital identities' will lead to discrimination

Experts warn that giving people a 'digital identity' could leave them vulnerable to discrimination.

Image credit: Good Audience

Efforts to give millions of people around the world with missing key paper documents - such as birth certificates - a digital identity could leave them vulnerable to persecution or discrimination, warn researchers from the University of Exeter.

The World Bank estimates that over one billion people - around a seventh of the world's population - currently lack official identity documents. People have missing documents either because they never had them in the first place, or they have been misplaced or lost.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals include the aim to provide legal identity for all by 2030.

For those who have missing identity documents, access to basic services including healthcare, housing, social protection, banking and education, is significantly more difficult. This issue is evident among asylum seekers who incur significant problems in acquiring legal status in a host country due to a lack of documentary evidence of their identity.

Dr Ana Beduschi, who led the research at the University of Exeter in 2019, said: "Technology alone cannot protect human rights or prevent people a digital identity will only help protect their human rights if those who provide it mitigate risks of potential discrimination and promote high standards of privacy and data protection".

If digital identity data falls into the wrong hands, this information may facilitate persecution by authorities targeting individuals based on their ethnicity.

Worries also exist that digital identity technology could lead to indirect discrimination. For example, biometric data collected from older individuals are often of less good quality, so only relying on this information could lead them to experience obstacles in joining and using digital identity programmes and accessing services.

Finally, it is important that governments do not misuse digital identity information, especially for unlawful surveillance. Any systems in place must comply with international human rights law, and have safeguards built in-line with domestic law on data storage, duration, usage, destruction and access of third parties, as well as strict guarantees against arbitrariness and abuse.


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