The growth of the ID industry is characterized by strange ironies. Over the last three decades both national (ID) and international (travel document) programs have proliferated around the world, yet questions about their efficacy are becoming more frequent as well as critical. Surely the technologies are proven, especially biometrics and eDocuments. Programs like AADHAAR have also established that digital identity is a reality and that biometrics are able to search over a billion identities for duplicates within seconds. Similarly, for travel, the chip-based machine-readable travel document (MRTD) popularly called the ePassport currently enables over a billion people to make nearly five billion border crossings every year safely and conveniently. In the coming decade (by 2030), these numbers will rise substantially.
All this makes working closer with people and institutions, critical for the ID industry.
Quoting from a blog about the “Ten Principles on Identification for Sustainable Development” (Vyjayanti Desai, co-authors Alan Gelb, Julia Clark and Anna Diofasi, 2017, italics mine):
“Yet the path to creating robust identification systems and achieving Target 16.9 is not always clear. In the past, many countries, development agencies, and NGOs have focused on identification from a narrow, functional perspective, and, in the process, created fragmented and inefficient identification systems with limited coverage. Given the size of the global identification gap and the complexity of identity issues, no country, international organization, NGO, or private sector partner can surmount this challenge by working alone — coordination is needed at global, regional and national levels.”
The ID industry plays an important role in shaping the future of civil ID programs, a fact that is often lost in the bureaucratic labyrinths of our national governments and is best high-lighted by understanding the gap between what the industry can deliver and what it is called upon to do.
ID programs have a special place in a nation. It embodies the trust between the state and its people. Based on this premise ID programs are also looked upon as enablers of economic development especially in the current situation when many low and medium income countries are striving to find new ways to catalyze economic success, and make sure it reaches every deserving citizen.
However, ill-conceived programs often have the effect of limiting what the citizen and state can do. This is especially true for programs where for example, biometrics are used for creating barriers rather than access.
ID programs most often cited as the best practices: AADHAAR of India, NADRA of Pakistan and RENIEC of Peru, among others, all have many things in common like inclusion (NADRA reached out to remote locations and across gender barriers), integration (RENIEC healed the post-civil war schisms) and coverage (AADHAAR covered everyone in India irrespective of social and civil status).
Also, over the last decade ID programs have become more complex, inter-disciplinary and multiple goal oriented. The recent example in Assam has been a litmus test, where four million individuals have been placed at risk of being declared stateless, when the state has the option to deploy the AADHAAR model instead that could have delivered more universally acceptable outcomes using the same technologies and systems.
While some of this can be attributed to politics, it also reflects on the limits of technologies and the problems that can be solved, a ball that lies squarely in the industry court. Such shortcomings can often be traced to solution architectures that do not address the legal framework within which the questions of identity are often enmeshed.
Thus, Assam was clearly a case where ID technology was used in substantial measure, but in the end only addressed two or three issues out of a dozen that must now be addressed manually for over four million individuals, causing further anxiety and the threat of large-scale violence.
Industry by now must know that it will always be called upon to solve such seemingly intractable problems, involving millions of people, often at a short notice. This is the new normal and requires much more than a missionary zeal to confront. It requires a wider and deeper understanding of not only how nations are administered but often how they come into being. Citizenship and nationality laws are not only stated in different ways but also interpreted based on what is said and what is not. Practices vary widely not only among states but also over time, due to changing political perceptions.
There are also the watershed moments when the industry requires to ponder over what is good for the people and what is good for the state. Max Weber provided a pointer perhaps when he stated (Objectivity in Social Science and Social Policy, 1904) italics mine:
“The capacity to distinguish between empirical knowledge and value-judgments, and the fulfillment of the scientific duty to see the factual truth as well as the practical duty to stand up for our own ideals constitute the program to which we wish to adhere with ever increasing firmness.”
Who shall a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) look upon to address such issues in full measure? Is it marketing, sales, technology, products, projects or legal? It seems to require yet another kind of specialization that can be broadly referred to as ID Policy.
She need not be merely an adviser, but someone who can perhaps be the most lethal long-range weapon in the company’s arsenal. She can help the internal teams imagine next-generation products. She can think of more effective business models and most important, she can be called in for discussions by national governments and international stakeholders much earlier, thus having greater leverage over the sales-cycle. She can also have better risk perceptions otherwise embedded in the legal fine-print of national contracts, that raise an ugly head every once in a while, and lead to long-term damage – financial and reputational.
Moore’s law might be dead, but technological advances and its deployment continue relentlessly. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Big Data are just two ideas that will impact ID technology in the coming years. An important difference is that these are closer to policy than ever before.
While there might not be robots one day to examine the identities of real human beings (but who know!), big data is expected to aid policy-makers see the big picture. But then, you might hear that this leads to an undesirable downward spiral from the causal to the correlational, and then wouldn’t you be glad to have your own ID policy officer to explain what it could mean to the future of your company?
(C) Sanjay Dharwadker, July 2018, Utrecht, The Netherlands.