The basic cornerstone of human civilization is poised for an upgrade.
As governments and corporations reimagine digital frameworks to oversee individuals, physical identification documents are becoming obsolete. Facial recognition softwares, biometrics, and virtual payments are shaping how individuals verify their identities.
Dr. Mariana Dahan knows firsthand how lacking basic identification documents can limit an individual’s destiny. Born without a birth certificate, she fled her home country Moldova after securing travel documents, escaping poverty and a region of Eastern Europe known for a high prevalence of sex-trafficking. She went on to obtain a masters degree from the Universite Paris-Dauphine, two PhDs from Paris II University and the European Business School, and accomplish research stints at MIT and Harvard Kennedy School.
After several years at the World Bank, Dr. Dahan launched the organization’s Identification for Development (ID4D) initiative; a multibillion program researching new identification programs. ID4D has been instrumental in mainstreaming new tools across the public and private sectors to combat the refugee crisis, but lately became the subject of controversy; Narendra Modi’s government cited the program as legal justification for removing ethnic minorities from India’s National Registry of Citizens, while Kenya went ahead with a digital ID program excluding millions of lifelong citizens.
Dr. Dahan saw firsthand how governments can weaponize emerging technologies against entire populations, installing surveillance tools and eliminating civil liberties. To counter this trend, she partnered with identity experts and other backers, such as Sir Richard Branson, to establish the World Identity Network (WIN) Foundation and raise awareness for “self-sovereign identity;” a responsible use of blockchain technology to encrypt an individual’s highly personal data so only they have access to it.
Paradox spoke with the futurist about emerging identification models and their relationship to government surveillance.
How is identity at the heart of a lot of the modern crises we’re facing, specifically the statelessness epidemic?
We need proof of identity to access basic services, whether those are social services like welfare or private services like booking travel accommodations. Although globalization has lifted many in developing countries out of poverty, violent military conflicts like what is happening in Syria have forced entire populations into statelessness. These refugees often don’t have proper identification documents or a method of proving their mere existence, and are detained at immigration checkpoints. Without proof of identity, they are kept in legal limbo for years and denied the chance to build any kind of meaningful life.
Organizations like the U.N. and the World Bank— the latter of which I served for eight years — have paid lip service to ending statelessness. When I started the World Bank’s ID4D global program in 2014, we identified 2.4 billion people living without a recognized proof of identity (ID) – among them, ten millions of stateless people who are not recognized as nationals of any country. Despite continued displacement of vulnerable communities – called “populations of concern” by UNHCR and including all the categories of displaced people in need of recognized ID documentation – the World Bank today estimates this number has decreased to 1.1 billion people. I personally believe this is an underestimated number. However, there’s hope and I believe much of the progress will come from technology. As much of the risks and dangers, too.
What is the role technology plays in the identity ecosystem?
Today technology is an enabler and a force-multiplier, but not the silver-bullet. It’s not the absolute solution to the problem, and there are human factors that I think need more attention: lack of acceptance, lack of political will, xenophobia, and racism. These are longstanding problems throughout human history.
But when there’s willingness to address the problem at scale, then technology can help. Any kind of disruption, like with what we’re seeing with blockchain, creates new opportunities to build better frameworks for solving problems. Technology plays a role in amplifying these forces. Remember, when Facebook was first adopted, it led to the Arab Spring and sparked an entire generation of new activism. Unfortunately, these tools often get co-opted by nefarious actors, so it’s important to rethink our relationship to them, and be open to upgrades.
In the identity ecosystem, technology already plays a dominant role, even though governments still rely on physical documents. Citizens in developed countries build credit scores, have longstanding social media accounts with a network of individuals they’ve interacted with throughout their lives, and utilize online financial services. If you forget your password to a service like Amazon or Facebook, a reset link can be texted to your cell phone, and clicking it functions as proof of identity because no one else is supposed to have that cell phone number. Our identities are incredibly tied to the virtual world, and the services corporations create through user portals, social media feeds, and payment rails.
Do you see blockchain-based systems as being the dominant form of technology underpinning new identification systems?
Blockchain is not the “be all, end all.” It’s an evolving technology and is built on pre-existing models, albeit innovative. In the coming years, it will be challenged by a new generation of technology, something like quantum computing is currently doing to processors. We won’t see a dominant design anytime soon, I believe, as technology will keep improving. But it’s the concept of “self-sovereignty” that I think is gaining momentum and driving the development of the underpinning technology.
How realistic is it that self-sovereign identification models will become the standard model for identification, when they directly undermine a government’s ability to track their citizens? There seem to be a lot of vested interests in making sure an individual’s data is controlled by the state and corporations.
There are vested interests, but there is also a collective interest in ensuring the implementation of a self-sovereign model. Technology may appear to govern itself, but it is still created with human frameworks, and these frameworks are built by principles. Just as Alexander Hamilton understood that principles serve as the foundation for the most prosperous and democratic civilizations in the world, we too can build sovereignty into the core of new technology. There are reference points throughout history we can turn towards and learn from, whether it’s the founding of the United States or international coalitions like the United Nations. These started as controversial ideas, but were nourished into successful democratic models, despite the challenges they face today.
Digital identity tools are controversial because they may be co-opted by governments and used for surveillance purposes. We’re already seeing this throughout China. Is this a case where the technology is to blame, or how the technology is used? How can we build safeguards into these models?
As one of the worst violators of human rights, China recently implemented a social credit system which monitors and penalizes its citizens for minor civil offenses, like jaywalking or criticizing the regime. Biometric identification is crucial in enforcing these punishments, and is used to target individuals who think differently than others; some employers in China even require workers to wear helmets that monitor their emotional states. Technology is not to blame, but it becomes a powerful weapon in the hands of the oppressor. As a global community, we must denounce abuse like this, and enforce sanctions for state perpetrators of oppression.
Raising awareness for injustice is definitely the first step, but as I previously said, the issue comes down to what principles are installed in the technology, and who plays a role in shaping them. Facebook started as a tool to rate women’s physical appearances and retroactively adopted language about giving “people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” It still has a long way to go to achieve that, but what’s clear is that civic participation is changing the course of action. The next generation of technology is being shaped by the urgency of the present moment, and the reality previous frameworks gave us.