UNDP looks at role of private sector in bringing digital identity across the world

UNDP along with UN Legal identity Task Force organised a roundtable event in May to look at private sector’s role in bringing in legal identities for everyone as part of sustainable development goals

Photo courtesy: Twitter/@Frost_Sullivan
Photo courtesy: Twitter/@Frost_Sullivan
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Ashlin Mathew

The Covid-19 pandemic has hastened the demand for digitisation, with the private sector using this opportunity to promote digital identity-based development models. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) along with the UN Legal identity Task Force organised an online roundtable event in May to look at the role of the private sector in bringing in legal identities for everyone in the world as part of sustainable development goals.

The UNDP roundtable saw the participation of the private sector, governments, academia, development partners and UN agencies and the report based on a series of these talks was released last week. The UNDP, UNICEF and the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) are co-chairs of the Task Force.

According to the UN, legal identity is defined as the basic characteristic of an individual’s identity (such as, name, sex, place and date of birth) conferred through registration and the issuance of a certificate by an authorised civil registration authority after birth.

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically increased remote working as a noticeable number of people work remotely from foreign locations. Not all locations are digitally equal and not all people have access to digital devices and their countries do not provide digital solutions to their population.

The private sector was trying to promote private-public partnerships to help bring rapid digitisation with the help of digital identity. The model has been actively implemented in India with Aadhaar. Aadhaar is a digital identity on top of which India digitised all of its services and allowed the private sector to access the Aadhaar application programming interfaces (API) too.

There is a global debate on if the private-public model was the way to digitise countries and the roundtable by UNDP brought in proponents and opponents of this model together. While the private sector was deeply interested in participating in the digital identity process, because it would them acquire new clientele, many civil society organisations, such as Privacy International, which were part of the meeting opposed the role of the private sector in digital identity.


Many participants underscored that the private sector had a role to play in legal identity due to many factors such as digital transformation of society, which they claimed has mostly been driven by the private sector.

At the roundtable, one of the largest private technology companies Google claimed that the private sector could offer a better mechanism to provide the source of truth during verification since they developed the social connections and networks, in addition to managing the digital identity networks. It was argued that the concept that the state would own the entirety of all legal identifiers would not work in the future.

“The private sector has a significant role to play in enabling government to rethink and understand in a different way, how they need to be able to manage legal identity,” said Titi Akinsanmi, Public Policy Lead, West and Francophone Africa, Google.

Some of the private sector companies wanted this data to begin financial inclusion. Payments company Master Card wanted to use digital identity to create ID service on a smart device and access provision and services through that. “The private sector is looking for institutional and policy frameworks to support that data sharing,” said Shashi Raghunandan, senior vice-president, Master Card.

Tom Fisher of Privacy International warned that ID systems were not being designed from scratch. “There is always the context in which the identity exists – the social context, and the exclusions and discriminations in that country. The key point when looking a designing an ID system is asking – what problem is one trying to solve? And what is the evidence that it is a problem? That’s necessary to make sure the system is legal in human rights terms, constitutional terms, data protection terms,” added Fisher.

The role of digital identity wasn’t limited to national identity, but also extended to other services such as vaccine certificates. There was a debate on the usage of digital identity to issue vaccine certificates and allow data sharing between countries using this digital identity. This is already in force with several countries sharing their vaccine certificate data with each other through standard application sharing interfaces.

“We need to refocus the discussion around vaccine certificates to the fundamental questions of equity, liberty and exclusion that these proposals raise. It is likely that vaccine certificates will accelerate the adoption of digital identity programmes by governments globally and may enable the permanent entrenching of centralised and mandatory identity systems, that have been designed without adequate consultation and the function creep they may enable. They may also distract from the pressing need to focus on achieving global vaccination. History is testament to systems designed as a temporary measure getting entrenched in our society – negatively impacting the rights of individuals,” argued Jhalak M Kakkar of the National Law University in Delhi. Function creep is what happens when we use technology and systems in ways beyond the original purpose, particularly when the new purpose results in invasion of privacy

In this context, it was argued at the round table that the idea of a single unique identity, that is universal, becomes the basis for establishing and verifying the identity of individuals and for issuing functional ID documents including bank cards, health insurance cards.

However, a researcher with Free Software Movement of India, Srinivas Kodali underscored that in India there were multiple IDs. “There is a functional ID for voting; there is a function ID for a driver’s license; there is a birth certificate; a passport. There are multiple forms of identities and none of them are unique. I am human and am unique, but the manifestation may not be unique. The idea of having one single identity does not make sense. We need to push for diverse modes of identification.”

“We need to have standards for identity to be unique and universal. I think, by pushing the idea of a universal standard, you are taking away the power from the individual and giving it away to the nation states, which we individuals have fought for,” added Kodali.

Digital Identity in India

The overarching reach of the digital identity platform in India, Aadhaar, made several people approach the Supreme Court on the issue of privacy and surveillance. The apex court, indeed, found an issue with Aadhaar and ruled that there should not be any private sector access to Aadhaar data. The court had ruled that the Aadhaar had an unconstitutional interference in an individual’s fundamental right to privacy.

The Supreme Court judgment in Aadhaar influenced other nations which were deciding to implement similar ID solutions like Aadhaar. In case of Jamaica, the Jamaican court had agreed with Justice DY Chandrachud’s minority judgement in the Aadhaar case and shut down Jamaica’s plans of digital identity.

“Constitutional guarantees cannot be compromised by vicissitudes of technology,” Justice Chandrachud had stated in the Aadhaar case. He called it a “fraud on the Constitution”.

Even in Kenya, the Kenyan activists were able to stall the roll out of Kenya’s digital identity Huduma Namba without a data protection law in Kenyan courts.

In India, the digital identification system put marginalised communities at a greater disadvantage especially during the pandemic as essential services were linked to Aadhaar authentication. More than 10 crore citizens including many homeless, elderly, disabled and transgender people have been left out of the system. Right to Food activists in Jharkhand have listed more than 200 deaths as a result of hunger due to denial of ration and social security pension because of the problems in linking ration cards to Aadhaar, internet failure and biometric mismatch.

Moreover, though the digital identity is to help with digitisation, it has created several surveillance infrastructure which has been misused by nation states. In case of India, Aadhaar has been used for profiling Indians in several states. The police too have begun to link Aadhaar details in their technology systems such as Crime and Criminal Tracking Networks and Systems (CCTNS) and Interoperable Criminal Justice System (ICJS) to manage criminal justice system.

In Telangana, the Hyderabad police force has already built its own criminal tracking system, and has built the Integrated People Information Hub, which will profile all residents, even those without criminal background. In addition to personal details, this database includes Aadhaar number too.

The UN itself did not endorse any of the discussions at the committee, but facilitated the discussion between various private sector parties. There is a large interest and opposition to digital identity across the globe.

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