ID2020 and the Question of Global Digital Identification

Living in New York, I don’t often use my driver’s license for actual driving. But I did need it when I started working at Articulate, and for every job I’ve had before this one. I’ve had to provide it to sign my lease, get on a plane, see a new doctor, or order a drink. And I needed it to walk into the United Nations, where I attended the ID 2020 Summit  in June.

At the Summit, I learned that one-fifth of the world’s population, usually those in the developing world, lives without a legal form of identification. Many lack a birth certificate and have no idea exactly how old they are. And when movement across borders suddenly becomes necessary, like it can be for this group of people, many are unable to identify themselves as they try to make it to safety, or set themselves up when they get there.

It put one of the conversations that took place at the event in perspective for me. Before the ID2020 Summit, if someone had told me they wanted to create a global, digital system identifying everyone on earth, I would have thrown around words like privacy, security and the rise in hacking. But with an understanding that it could serve a real, beneficial purpose to societies such as refugees, women who have been trafficked across borders, or those that simply never got a birth certificate to prove who they are, it’s no surprise that the conference community generally thought it was a good idea.

A passport or plastic driver’s license can be lost too easily; a digital token, in which name, date of birth, height and eye color, permanent address, gender, and more are stored, can move with someone, giving them access to immigration, housing, a job, a bank account, and more. Experts at the Summit expressed this as an imminent need for identification for the sake of just identification, not, for example, to prove we passed the driving test.

This would require vast amounts of data, technology capabilities, and most of all, a completely new approach to security and data sharing. Many of the technologies that will enable bringing an ID to everyone are already in our hands, like smartphones and blockchain. But how they are applied to the problem is not easy to address. Whatever the solution may be, it would need to overcome questions on acceptable privacy standards, security, and maintenance of records.

A quote that stuck with me from the very start of the Summit was this: “Everyone owns your data but you.” As digital natives, or simply as people who use technology every day, we have Facebook accounts and blogs, and rarely think twice about entering our details online when a form asks us to. If pressed, most of us couldn’t even tell you exactly how many companies have information about us. And what information they have. So the question becomes, do we have the right to say no to a global, digital identification system because of potential perceived privacy issues, when it could do so much good for so many people, given we freely give away so much information on our own?