ID for all purposes or people? – Privacy International (ep. 8)

November 4, 2022

In this episode we’re in conversation with Tom Fisher, senior researcher at Privacy International, a human rights and surveillance advocacy organization based in London.

What’s happened to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 16.9 for legal identity for all by 2030? Has it been repurposed to support other goals?  And if so, who’s responsible?

In this episode we’re in conversation with Tom Fisher, senior researcher at Privacy International, a human rights and surveillance advocacy organization based in London.

The looseness of the goal and how it is measured has created something of a vacuum which has allowed governments, international organizations and the private sector to interpret the SDG in their own ways. Reports of negative impacts on people around the world have accompanied positive developments and progress towards the goal.

Fisher discusses the response of civil society.

Privacy International was one of more than 70 organizations and individuals to sign a joint letter calling on organizations such as the World Bank as wells as donor countries to “cease activities that promote harmful models of digital identification systems.”

We plan to hear from the other side of the debate in an upcoming episode.

Time stamps below reflect speakers’ opinions:

02:03 Tom Fisher on Privacy international and its work

03:30 Civil society organizations globally are increasingly concerned with and active on identity issues, more international organizations increasingly active in identity

05:29 Why Fisher wrote a blog piece on SDG 16.9

06:20 Institutions including the World Bank seemed to be using SDG 16.9 to push digital identity projects, biometrics and impact on human rights compared to simple birth registration of the goal

07:10 Issues arose as ‘legal identity’ is an unclear term

08:40 If the efforts channelled into digital, biometrics were diverted to birth registration there would be more progress

10:00 [CLIP] Niall McCann defining legal identity

11:33 The need to balance up when ID is actually needed in life and where it deepens exclusion

13:34 Where ID can lead to political exclusion, such as for the Nubian community in Kenya

14:39 Issues of a single ID versus a multiplicity of documents

15:38 Have to think long-term, longer even than a person’s lifetime for intergenerational issues

16:55 [CLIP] Niall McCann on issue of being registered as an adult in digital ID system not counting towards birth registration targets

17:25 Digital ID such as Aadhaar can omit nationality, causing other problems

18:22 Concern that UN is moving away from the fact birth registration and adult ID do different things, potentially leading to human rights risks

20:48 Governments and organizations cite issues with birth registration as a reason to introduce biometric ID, eg Kenya, Mexico. They present little evidence, what other ways are there? Digital ID becomes presented as developmental good

23:50 Discourse now around ID as a human right which ignores the issue that people without ID still have rights

24:38 Covid-19 was another instance for ID companies to state that their systems are effective tools for pandemic response

25:50 Failure to understand what the problems are leads to thinking MOSIP is appropriate to be exported anywhere

28:16 World Bank technically supported the rollout of MOSIP-based systems in the Philippines and required it to be linked to the social security system to secure World Bank funding

28:45 Increasing civil society awareness of identity issues, challenges to these systems. Examples from India, Kenya

30:52 Signed letter from more than 70 organizations to the World Bank and other organizations to critique how they are behaving in ID

32:23 The World Bank and its ID4D division doe hold meeting with civil society, engage, but more of a change is need in its approach to civil society

35:57 Civil society has independently become aware of risks worldwide

36:44 Has never met a civil society organization that is against ID

37:29 The demands of the joint letter: a rights-based assessment of the World Bank, its funding and technical support

39:24 Need more transparency on World Bank activities, this would help civil society and the Bank and it’s not about making the World Bank an enemy

41:00 Many other organizations, donors involved

43:08 Debate is becoming polarized, which is dangerous. Knowledge in countries is a sign of hope of better debate, solutions

45:33 Risk of digital ID systems leading to more use cases where ID is needed

46:48 Asking to check ID has power over people

47:53 Private sector and government use of IDs is essential for them to work, so use cases are needed

48:23 The issue of uniqueness – is it always necessary? Does it have to be via biometrics? Can we change other process such as bank account opening?

Find out more about the ID 16.9 Podcast and the importance of legal identity at

Produced and hosted by Frank Hersey at Biometric Update

FRANK HERSEY: Welcome to the ID16.9 Podcast where we examine the ins and outs of legal identity and United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 16.9 for legal identity for all including birth registration by 2030.

I’m your producer and host frank Hersey.

In this episode, we’re exploring the goal itself and how it’s been interpreted by international organizations, governments, the private sector and even podcast hosts.

Right back at the beginning of the series, we heard from Niall McCann, Policy Advisor and Program Manager for Legal Identity at the UNDP on some of the issues baked into the goal itself and how its progress is measured.

[CLIP] NIALL MCCANN: Looking back on it now, setting the indicator target as proportion of children under the age of five whose birth has been registered probably wasn’t comprehensive enough to capture the complexity of this issue because it just doesn’t deal with adults who previously did not have legal identity, but now because they’ve been registered a digital ID scheme do have legal identity.

FRANK HERSEY: We’ll be covering these and a wide range of issues that led a group of more than 70 organizations and individuals such as Access Now, Privacy International and Unwanted Witness to write a joint letter to the World Bank, other international organizations and donor countries to, quote, “cease activities that promote harmful models of digital identification systems.”

Joining me today is Tom Fisher, senior researcher at Privacy International, a human rights and surveillance advocacy organization based in London.

Tom, welcome to the show.

TOM FISHER: Thank you very much, delighted to be here.

FRANK HERSEY: And so I thought we could get started with a bit of an introduction, a bit of a background on Privacy International and what it does and why identity is an issue for Privacy International.

TOM FISHER: Privacy International is basically a campaigning organization that does advocacy and research on companies and governments that exploit our data and technologies, expose harm and abuses, mobilize allies globally, campaign with the public and more broadly with other groups, try to put pressure on companies and governments to change.

We’ve been working on identity since the organization was founded. With the UK ID system in the mid 2000s, Privacy International was one of the key organizations fighting that eventually led to the defeat of that system and the deletion of the biometric database.

But it’s a perennial topic which really has emerged far more strongly in the last 6, 7 years as an important one for concern these new systems, particularly digital systems coming up around the world. Aadhaar in India being one of the leading leading examples but also Kenya, the Huduma Namba system, and in the Philippines at the moment and in Mexico, many countries have seen these kind of these kind of systems developing and the problems they cause leading to issues of exclusion for populations, issues surrounding insecurity these systems can bring, risks of data breaches, all these kinds of things and then the surveillance capabilities of these kind of systems.

It’s been a concern which civil society organizations all over the world are I think increasingly concerned with as they see it kind of impacting their own countries, these issues surrounding identity, identification, how that and how that relates things like Sustainable Development Goal 16.9 and the some of the most powerful institutions in the world, the World Bank, United Nations agencies, hugely powerful private companies, the biometrics firms, the identity companies.

And then on the national level often pushed through at the highest kind of high level, presidential politics, pushing through these sets of systems and various other organizations around, ID4Africa, pushing for the development of certain technologies in the African context.

It really is important to be critically examining what is happening in the world right now with this kind of with this relentless push towards kind of these systems often paying little regard to the actual human rights impact and the impacts of people on the ground.

FRANK HERSEY: I think I’m going to play that back to people because when I tell people that I do a podcast on legal identity, one of the first things I get asked is ‘is there really enough to report on? Is there really enough to do a podcast on on this?’ and you know, I then try to explain just how big a topic it is and that you rounded up many, many different aspects to it there.

I suppose it is in that capacity that you wrote a blog piece and this is going back five years now. No sorry this is going back four years now to 2018 when you wrote a blog piece for Privacy International about the SDGs, about SDG 16.9 a legal identity for all.

So 2018 was what? Three years into the SDGs? Because unfortunately the Millennium Development Goals hadn’t managed to solve everything, we rolled into the Sustainable Development Goals, so I was just wondering what brought you at the time to write that blog piece?

TOM FISHER: I think looking at the text of Sustainable Development Goal 16.9 “by 2030 provide legal identity for all, including birth registration, the question is, what does legal identity mean? It doesn’t seem to us at all clear, no kind of agreed definition. Also, it talked about birth registration.

People are correct in saying it’s hugely important and powerful for giving people access to the essential services leading to it can it can be necessary for things like education, health, employment, all these myriad of things that have been talked about in other episodes of this, of this podcast.

But what struck me is that despite the SDG only mentioning birth registration and the measure of that purely being about birth registration then how this was being used and pushed by both powerful institutions, the World Bank, key proponents in this area, but also seemingly everyone who is kind of selling a digital identity product were using it to mean these kind of digital identity systems, usually biometric more to do with ID cards or ID numbers linked to kind of centralized government databases a lot of the time it was used as a as a way of kind of pushing and promoting these systems which have huge consequences for people’s human rights and their lives as opposed to birth registration.

You know, it’s it just seems to me that seems to me at the time that people were using this SDG for their own agendas rather than what it actually was. Now, this is largely because the term legal identity no one really knew what it meant. There’s all kinds of different interpretations there as to what it actually actually does mean. I think in the years since we’ve got two more of an established kind of agreement surrounding of this.

FRANK HERSEY: So just wondering, do you have your own sort of understanding of what legal identity is you or Privacy International or is that not the point? Would that be the wrong thing to do with that, just yet another interpretation.

TOM FISHER: I think it’s a term has to be used sometimes with caution because it’s not necessarily clear always what it means, but I think it is entering more more into kind of the discourse. So it’s not a term to be avoided all together.

I put my emphasis on birth registration, civil registration, these aspects leading from that things like death registration, which also even if you could argue that other forms of identification tie into legal identity, if you want to argue that the kind of biometric ID system also can be used as legal identity – the challenge is that those systems come with so many more concerns. So many more privacy concerns, so many more different elements to it that I think we really do need to strip it back to, okay, let’s look at birth registration alongside the other elements registration of refugees, other elements going on.

If we just if we put the efforts that have been put into these kind of other biometric ID systems towards kind of the basics here of birth registration, I think we can make massive progress in that. And there are these interesting and exciting ideas in that field which are kind of not necessarily followed up on when birth registration link to things like Social Security payments and things like that. How that can boost rates, how to do that in a in a decent way, how we can improve these kind of systems because identifying the weaknesses in these systems that’s hugely kind of important.

But when solutions to that become biometric, giving ID cards to everyone, that just seems to me to kind of miss.. increased risks into the system. Misses what’s kind of important.

FRANK HERSEY: I’m going to say I’ve got a clip here from Niall McCann, who is the former Policy Advisor and Program Manager for Legal Identity at the UNDP. Because I spoke to him earlier in the series about what is legal identity and just what you’ve been saying there about maybe going back to the basics.

I just thought I’d play this and see what you think of his summing up of what legal identity is.

[CLIP] NIALL MCCANN: Legal identity is the basic characteristics of a person, including date of birth, place of birth,  name, sex as recorded by a legal civil registration authority.

FRANK HERSEY [00:10:15] Okay, so that was Niall McCann with quite a simple look at legal identity and with the, I think, important element threeof it being registered by the civil registration – a recognized entity in the country. Do you think think that’s a fair summing up? And do you think that’s something that’s a little bit lost at the moment?

TOM FISHER [00:10:35] Yes, I think, you know, it’s about that kind of civil registration process. It’s about those kind of the kind of birth certificates which will enable people to, moving through their life, to gain access to more and more kind of services and things.

[00:10:54] We start to think about what do we do with, about the people who haven’t had their births registered? And should they necessarily be not able to access, say, health care or education for their children just because they haven’t had their birth registered? That seems to me to be often not necessarily, you know, justified. And it kind of, you know, leads to deeper exclusion for people who haven’t had their birth registered. There may be, you know, good reasons to have these kind of requirements in place. You know, KYC for bank accounts, various forms of fraud you’re looking to prevent. But you’ve also got to recognize that this brings with it a great deal of exclusion. Balancing up these kind of these needs, these factors is kind of extremely important to make your decisions, whether you’re going to require someone to have a birth certificate. Looking at looking at the ID world more generally, there’s this idea that the expansion of uses of ID is inherently a good thing, that pushing more people to need it is beneficial. Whereas we’d say that just deepens the exclusion of those who don’t have access.

FRANK HERSEY [00:11:59] Yeah, I was at the ID4Africa event in Marrakesh a couple of months ago in June, and in the main auditorium, somebody from HID [Global], one of the private sector providers, Joby Mathew, he was addressing the auditorium of people from civil registries and ministries which represent ID from across Africa. And he asked the audience whether they agreed if I think he said ‘legitimate ID’, whether they agreed, if legitimate ID is needed to access public services. And I looked around and I’d say 80% of the people there put their hands up to say yes, they think ID should be needed to access public services. And I know this is not this is not a scientific way of doing things. Somebody in a conference asking a question.

But even so, I was surprised at the number of people putting up their hand. So it did feel a little bit there that things have moved on, that ID is for accessing services. It’s not necessarily just about identifying yourself.

TOM FISHER [00:13:01] I mean, we’ve worked with organizations in Kenya, working with people who because they’ve been caught up, you know, on refugee databases, often through no fault of their own, they end up double registered and then unable to get Kenyan ID. And the amount of exclusion that they face, not able to access education, problems with healthcare, employment, even just traveling around the country becomes a huge challenge. We work with organizations who are getting these communities registered and jumping through the jumping through the legal hoops.

So I think I really think that this level of of exclusion, when you know that there are communities and groups that have difficulty accessing these this documentation, both for kind of reasons which poverty and reasons of distance from centers, it can be reasons, just the bureaucratic problems, but it can also be kind of a political decision to exclude particular groups. That’s in the Kenyan case that went to court on Huduma Namba, it was members of the Nubian community who had, despite being in Kenya for many, many, many decades, had a group which has trouble establishing themselves as Kenyan citizenship.

FRANK HERSEY [00:14:15]  And it carries on from one generation to another. You know, if you look at Kenya with the requirement for birth certificate to attend school, you go from one of these communities which is excluded and denied citizenship, then your children might not be able to be registered and might not be able to attend school. And in some in some ways, it can just go on and on as ID systems are more strongly implemented.

TOM FISHER [00:14:39] I think, though, that the we the challenges when we when we tie everything back to one singular form of ID, that becomes a huge challenge because in some contexts, people have a multiplicity of identity documents, ways of proving who they are. They might have a driving license, might have maybe ID from an educational establishment, all these different forms of, you know, of establishing their identity. Yet when we begin to tie all of those back to one single, you know, one single source of truth as it’s put in places like Kenya, then, you know, it’s tying everything back to that single well single well not even document but entry in the database now that’s outside the individual’s control and you don’t have access to that one thing, then it’s kind of serious consequences, result.

[00:15:30] And that just kind of gives so much power both to the state, to these kind of organizations, you know, when we’re talking about any of these topics to do with identity, birth registration it’s just like we really have to think long term here because these things are relevant for the entirety of people’s lives or even longer, as you said, about some inter-generational issues. And that’s really that’s really a challenge because you have to think about not only your own your government for the moment, about what they might do with this kind of with these kind of databases or this kind of power over.

But also, do you trust your government ten years from now? Do you trust institutions to be able to protect you in those kind of contexts? This is why, particularly in kind of more fragile states, in this kind of context, then this kind of relentless push for these more invasive, more more dangerous to put it frankly systems and increases. Because I think one of the things that Niall went on to say in his in his podcast, I don’t know whether you’ve got the clip but is related to this acceptance that maybe there is, say, a digital identity scheme and so gets it later in life that can still count as legal identity.

FRANK HERSEY [00:16:45] I do have that as a clip on my hotkeys should I play it?

TOM FISHER [00:16:49] Yes. Yeah, go for it.

FRANK HERSEY [00:16:50] Okay, here we go. So this is Niall again. He uses India as his as his example.

NIALL MCCANN [00:16:55] If you’re 35 years of age, you never had a birth certificate, but now you’ve been registered into a digital ID scheme, like in the Aadhaar system in India, you’ve got an ID number. Your biometrics has been taken so you can authenticate yourself and you can access public services. Well, then you have been granted legal identity and yet under the strict definition of the indicator, i.e. proportion of children under the age of five whose births are registered, you’re not going to be captured.

FRANK HERSEY [00:17:21] Is that the point you meant?

TOM FISHER [00:17:23] Yes. Yeah, yeah. I think what we have to remember is that they do different things. Your birth certificate and say Aadhaar in India, it’s most notably in Aadhaar doesn’t say anything about your nationality. It’s available for residents, legal residents, I should say, and citizens. Whereas documents like birth certificates can help establish your nationality. And I think we see this in a lot of different, different ways. They kind of lumping together all these different concepts and documents form different functions, things that Aadhaar Card can do that the birth certificate can’t as well. So lumping this all together within legal identity also you’ve got to be aware that this is just the term that’s still being shared, the various concepts, yes, perform different functions. And I mean, that’s fair enough because to an extent, because this you know, the SDGs were hard fought over to get to these kind of targets, these descriptions. But we’ve still got to remember, they do different things. I’m concerned this is something the UN has moved away from and is going to lump together in statistical gathering. Just provide the headline figure of legal identity, even though that hides a multitude of issues and nationality.

You get to the position where you can, you can have proof of legal identity but not of nationality, which is one of the major causes of exclusion being stateless. So these kind of issues, such a massive, massive issue which will affect every single aspect of your life. So lumping them all together under legal identity that could be used to hide and to not reveal some kind of quite serious human rights risks there. So much of this falls on the UN to an extent because that emphasis on birth registration far more than other organizations like the World Bank. Yes, I’d like to be sure that they really do emphasize that element rather than other systems which come with so many different kind of human rights risks.

FRANK HERSEY [00:19:27] You know, I would say that the UN seems to have become more aware of the issues around the indicators it set for itself and really the sort of looseness of the SDG, SDG 16.9 overall and how useful it is. In some ways it seems as though once it’s gone out there it’s forked or developed in two different directions as this birth registration, which is maybe easier to measure, and that’s what the SDG is. But then it’s being reinterpreted by governments and the private sector and these large international organizations as being identity that use as an adult to access services and to do things. And it’s almost as though the the SDG itself created this vacuum for other people to fill and create their own interpretations.

I mean, even I need to be careful sometimes when I’m discussing what legal identity is because I, my way thinking is that it’s a way being able to prove who you are at all. But looking at the SDG 16.9, is it just whether my birth was registered? So I think there’s been this ongoing vacuum really, which other people are jumping into.

TOM FISHER [00:20:39] With so many different actors in the space, pushing their own kind of agendas with these these kind of gaps in place, you know, to give an example, one of the things we’ve seen with the development of problematic biometric ID schemes in Kenya and what they’re developing now in Mexico is that the argument made by governments and also the World Bank is that, you know, weaknesses in birth registration need these biometric ID solutions.

And that’s a huge that’s a huge problematic leap in their thinking, this kind of logical leap which very little evidence is presented for, it’s very unclear clear why weaknesses in birth registration can’t then be dealt with in other ways, rather than necessarily making that move to biometric ID cards for everybody. It’s still very much used as a argument the need to deal kind of birth registration issues. I think the problem to an extent is it’s less it’s less sexy, it’s less technologically advanced. I know there’s got to be solutions, but a lot of it’s going to come down to some often perhaps relatively mundane measures to improve and work on these kinds of systems, as opposed to having this kind of solution to so many different problems, presented in the form of digital ID, which is presented as solving and being beneficial to measures across over many different aspects.

Because when you see what the World Bank will emphasize is how, how meeting SDG 16.9 also benefits all these other SDGs from maternal health, education, all these, all these things. You know how digital ID will benefit across kind of this range of SDGs without looking into how it can harm progress in those areas by cutting off people’s access to essential services or leaving people stateless or creating all these these additional problems. And we lead to a kind of one sided perspective where the pursuit of digital identity is only kind of a developmental good without exploring the the harms, both developmentally and from a human rights perspective.

FRANK HERSEY [00:22:58] I was wondering whether you might think when SDG 16.9 was created, there was something of a lack of foresight with how technology would develop? Or could it be that technologies developed so quickly in the meantime that it’s become out of date? Or do you think that it just the overall fundamental aim of 16.9 is still valid?

TOM FISHER [00:23:22] Looking with with kind of hindsight and I wasn’t all that familiar with, but perhaps the benefit of hindsight, we should perhaps look more at kind of the kind of ID-related harms, which goes both ways, with people excluded, but also what comes along with it, issues of insecurity, what happens when there’s data breaches or these kind of risks. I still think the organizations pushing for ID would have found other ways of ways of doing it, like there’s a discourse now surrounding ID as a rights as a kind of as a human right, which is also problematic in many respects.

ID is very helpful in reality in accessing many rights, but making it a right in itself, you know, ignores that, you know, even the people without ID have the same rights as everyone else. Human rights apply to everybody. And making ID itself a right, as opposed to just a kind of contingent tool to living in society, is then used as a, again, an excuse for kind of rolling out more and more systems, but also expanding, expanding their scope to apply to more and more different aspects of people’s lives. Another example, you know, when when when COVID came along, completely unprecedented challenge. People working in the ID space suddenly found that, oh, ID is the perfect solution to the challenges of COVID also, but specific to that, the particular ID system that their company or that they were fans of happens to be the perfect solution to this utterly unprecedented threat. Amazing coincidence that, you know, there’s not enough kind of critical reflection on how what people have become fans of in terms of a system will then operate and work in different ways and how it might work very well in some contexts, but not in others, because the issue surrounding identity is such a huge range, diverse set of sets of problems.

Lumping them all together into one system, I think is going to lead to to issues, exclusions, it not working or being apporpriate in that kind of in that kind of context. So these kind of single solutions to the world problems connected to identity in some kind of ways, I think is a cause of the kind of of the challenges that we could just export these ideas to the to the other countries and a system like MOSIP is appropriate in all these different contexts, which boils down to a failure to really articulate or establish what the problem is you are trying to solve with this kind of system. And then that leads to not establishing what the problem is means that you can’t analyze and look at whether the proposed ID card solution is the appropriate one for that problem. That current spread around the world then there’s all of these kind of all these kind of issues. There’s an alternative universe where your podcast on legal identity is about what type of paper should we is best to print a birth certificate on.  Or.

FRANK HERSEY [00:26:32] Can you print it at home?

TOM FISHER [00:26:32] Yeah. How, how do you know, how do various digital tools for birth registration work and operate? yeah, that’s kind of what I wish so much more of the more of the focus was upon in that kind of in that kind of area. But because so many of these different concepts then get conflated into legal identity, it means that we’ve got to deal with a whole other set of issues as well around the biometrics, around how these things are stored, the exclusion, how these systems are used for surveillance as well on top of all that.

FRANK HERSEY [00:27:07] Yeah, data security. Data privacy, of course.

TOM FISHER [00:27:10] Yeah. So I appreciate the challenge of the of the podcast and the topic, but it’s kind of how do we bring the bring the world kind of world back in away from the risky, dangerous kind of all inclusive systems that’s you know, is the current norm towards the focus on basics to a large extent so.

FRANK HERSEY [00:27:34] That those different strands – there’s the government side of things, international organizations, private sector and development sector. I think they all come together quite nicely in what the World Bank sets out to do, because I think it would say that it is trying to promote all of those things in its promotion of ID systems. So just going back to the piece you wrote four years ago where you actually looked into the World Bank and then what’s happened in the meantime? Because, you know, four years ago you were already questioning the World Bank projects and principles and I was wondering what has happened in the meantime.

TOM FISHER [00:28:16] Well, we’ve seen in that time more systems being introduced, paid for by the by the World Bank or technically supported by them in the Philippines. The the roll outs of MOSIP-based systems there. If you look at the contracts the government signed with the World Bank, then it’s saying you’ve got to push this roll out, get it through, and also link your Social Security system to the the system as a requirement for our funding and things.

But at the same time, we’ve seen an increasing kind of awareness and challenging of this kind of perspective by civil society organizations around the world. And we’ve seen more and more organizations beginning to come together and question why is this why are these systems being forced upon us where, you know, where it’s not benefiting our constituency? Maybe we’re a vulnerable, excluded, vulnerable group, but we’re being required to use this. We have trouble accessing ID system, why is this biometric, new biometric ID going to benefit us at all or the elderly people whose fingers are worn and can’t use fingerprint scanners or or trans people who just risk deepening exclusion from the expansion of these sorts of sensory systems. Once these systems kind of hit a hit a country, then we see kind of the civil society developing these critiques coming together to kind of to to challenge.

Very much in India, there’s still active debates over Aadhaar. In Kenya, amazing breadth of knowledge coming to coming together from from these groups. I was involved as an expert witness in the case brought to Court by the Nubian, Nubian Rights Forum, among others. And what really impressed me there, is we’ve got these organizations really working from a grassroots level, recognizing the challenges that these kind of systems will bring to them, and also generating that knowledge that experiene, those arguments surrounding these systems is fantastic, amazing knowledge of these kind of that these groups and these people have to learn remarkably quickly because these are systems which often introduced at speed. This bottom up movement from the society and recognition that organizations, powerful organizations like the World Bank and their ID4D initiative pushing so hard on this, a lot of the time, funding it, giving that kind of technical advice to set up some things, realizing that it’s not just at the national level but at this international level. These kind of things need to be challenged. Recently there was the a open letter to the World Bank, signed by more than 70 organizations from around the world, from, I think, every continent beginning to challenge and critique the way in which these powerful organizations are behaving.

FRANK HERSEY [00:31:10] How did that come about then? Because Privacy International was one of the signatories on this letter of 70. I mean, unfortunately, it seems that there’s been more and more civil society organization activity around the world as more and more unfortunate ID systems are implemented and funded. So I was wondering how these organizations got together to draft and come up with this letter.

TOM FISHER [00:31:33] Well, Privacy International’s own network of organizations that we’ve been working with for many years, funding in many cases supporting their work, as well as other sets of other organizations around the world emerging from various sectors and networks, brought together very much by organizations like the Namati, Privacy International, Access Now, we had been engaging with the World Bank over the last the last couple of years on some of some of the issues. We began to raise the understanding vote with consultations with them on the principles for identification, for sustainable development that World Bank were leading in drafting.

FRANK HERSEY [00:32:21] And the World Bank is willing to engage, isn’t it? It does…

TOM FISHER [00:32:23] The World the World Bank, to be fair on ID4D, there has been engagement and meetings with civil society. I should be fair to compare to, for example, the UN Legal Identity Task Force had much less civil society engagement. Almost none in its initial drafting in establishing an establishment so that there is a degree of listening from the World Bank. But I think we’ve reached a stage where we really need some kind of stronger change in in approach, both how they work with, engage with civil society, but also also to really interrogate the things like the evidence base of why they are pushing for these particular particular models.

Now, I know the World Bank would say that they are kind of more agnostic in what actual model is being pushed in all these contexts. And yet we see a great deal of similarity in what they are actually funding and offering technical support to. I know in the in in the eyes of many across civil society they’re still strongly associated with kind of Aadhaar-like models and it’s limited to the extent to which they have done anything to any other models of ID. You know, there has been an extent of engagement and and obviously, more more engagement and conversations are always welcomed. How do we take this forward in this kind of well, this push, as I say, emerging very much from organizations affected on the ground of fearing how a system will affect them?

How do we then deepen the engagement with the World Bank? How do you bring about more change in the kind of the approach they take? How do we begin to get that appreciation of human rights more into the into the work of ID4D? With the best will in the world, world Bank focused on developmental issues rather than human rights issues. Important difference from U.N. institutions. How do we begin to build an approach which appreciates kind of the the risks and dangers and the problems that come with these kind of with these systems, rather than this kind of relentless push and rollouts around the world.

FRANK HERSEY [00:34:30] Was there any particular trigger for the letter being published now?

TOM FISHER [00:34:34] Well, there were some interesting, interesting reports coming out of the Digital Welfare State and Human Rights Group [Project] and some excellent work there, you know, through their own consultations with civil society, produced a quite hard hitting report on the World Bank entitled ‘[Paving] a Digital Road to Hell?’ on how really getting to be to analyze what is happening and those kind of sets of sets of problems and initiatives. So that was kind of a key, you know, one of the key ways in which the authors of that report also reflected how civil society was talking about analyzing and looking at the problems with this organization.

And so that really, on the basis for much of this kind of much of the critique emerging in the in the open letter, you know, there’s other sets of work also important here, Centre for Internet and Society in India recently published a report on Aadhaar around the world looking at our influences on systems in Kenya and Nigeria, in which the World Bank has played a key and powerful role and all that kind of ongoing work and analysis that is being done by the moment by Privacy International and our partners on systems in Mexico and the Philippines. I see this increasingly getting towards a crucial moment here in the development of this, because what I find remarkable talking to all these organizations around the world, you know, they they came independently to the conclusions around the risks, around and around the role of these powerful international organizations.

That’s that’s kind of context where they are really risking the legitimacy of these identity systems if they’re being imposed without much consideration of human rights, maybe, maybe playing some kind of lip service to a few issues, but but basically forming huge risks. You, you’re reducing trust, reducing legitimacy in this kind of in these kind of models, these kinds of ideas. It can be difficult working within civil society ecause the accusation is that we are just naysayers, that we are opposed to all the… anti-ID altogether, all these kind of allegations made. I’ve never met a single civil society organization of the hundreds I’ve talked with, engaged with, been at events with, who’ve said they’re against you, against ID, against any form of identification, against all these kind of things. I’ve spoken to many who are against a particular form, a particular system.

FRANK HERSEY [00:37:04] How it’s used.

TOM FISHER [00:37:05] A particulare approach, how it’s used – these kind of issues. But together we can begin to build and look at and work on systems which deal with the genuine problems, the difficulties that people face in their lives.

FRANK HERSEY [00:37:15] So what did these 70 sets of open minded civil society organizations or individuals come together and ask for in this letter? I wondered if you could go through some of the what the demands really.

TOM FISHER [00:37:29] The letter called for various very specific goals. There’s a need, really, for an assessment, a rights based assessment on what the role, the World Bank’s role is in supporting these kind of digital ID systems globally. It’s been going on for several years now, since Aadhaar’s been around since, what, 2009? Mm hmm. These kinds of sets of systems can be more kind of mature, but understanding that evidence base of what’s what’s happening, those kind of looking at what the impact genuinely is, is hugely important. And that getting that evidence into the call, getting that evidence base of the human rights violations of what’s what the impact generally has been of the systems on human rights. Because the challenge for civil society organizations, while we do work and look into documenting many of these kind of abuses, it’s we’ve not got the kind of scale we’ve not got this kind of kind of analysis to be able to really look at what is what is happening.

Why is the World Bank… we reallly need to halt, give a, give a pause, give the chance to look at both, you know, the funding, but also the kind of advice and technical support offered by the World Bank and ID4D, you know what what really is the impact of this? How can we we assess kind linking these things to Social Security, how are people excluded or failing to access often essential, essential funds or goods which keeps them alive?

FRANK HERSEY [00:39:05] So I suppose it’s a couple of things really, isn’t it? So asking the World Bank to fund independent studies, assessments of its own work, but for it to be independent, not not doing it itself on itself, and then to pause any further investment or rolling out new ID systems in the meantime.

TOM FISHER [00:39:24] And I think alongside that, we need to get greater transparency about the activities of the World Bank surrounding this, like these kind of what are they doing with their client governments? Because we have we have kind of frameworks like the Principles on Identification for Sustainable development. We don’t really know in any way how that’s used or enforced or how that kind of what circumstances are there red lines drawn surrounding breaches of that. We don’t have that transparency about how they’re actually kind of operating.

So I think having that transparency is beneficial for all all parties involved because if the civil society understands better what the measures the World Bank is taking, then that’s good, not only for civil society, but also for the World Bank. It’s not about making the World Bank into an enemy here. It’s not about it’s not got those kind of motivations. It’s about understanding, creating a future where that you’ve got that amazing knowledge about what is happening on the ground, that analysis of how these systems affect people who are so often excluded from these processes, or only kind of partially involved in a relatively minor way, bringing them into the heart of these kinds of of these processes.

FRANK HERSEY [00:40:40] There is some sort of momentum being generated now and a more powerful voice to direct organizations. I think it’s probably worth noting that the letter isn’t just to the World Bank, it’s to other organizations as well, primarily the World Bank. But it does mention the UN and even donors, donor countries such as France, the UK, Australia.

TOM FISHER [00:41:01] Yeah, I think it’s notable that we have these key kind of funders, organizations like the UK is funding ID4D when the UK itself rejected any form of biometric identity card for its own citizens, they’re now willing to fund them around the world. Similarly with Australia. But those key funders, you know, there are many other actors other than the World Bank involved in this because they’ve set themselves up both they’re powerful funders.

They’ve also got the kind of technical advice and guidance setting themselves up as experts in the wealth of information they put out there and then their behind the scenes work they do with governments – one of the key places where there’s a lack of transparency. They’ve been identified again and again as kind of a key source of both funding or part of the drive for particular things. And they’re hugely influential on other organizations like ID4Africa and their and their work pushing out these systems in the African context.

There are other kind of groups, coalitions also in identity space: ID2020, as well as those pushing a kind of self-sovereign identity, blockchain based problems, blockchain based solutions and all these kind of other other models out there which equally need to be critiqued. I don’t think we should necessarily think that the World Bank is the sole the sole organization to influence here, but they are key and probably the most important one in the world. So this is why it’s identified as a target for this particular bit of advocacy.

FRANK HERSEY [00:42:36] Yeah, I think there’s an interesting timeline here in a way, because the you know, the blog that we’re talking about before that you wrote in 2018 addressing many of these issues, it seems that in the meantime, they’ve intensified, you know, more money has poured in. And so 2022, there’s this letter from all these organizations in the world, with a 2023 deadline. I just wondered how you see the whole sector progressing. Do you think it’s going to be accelerating? Do you think there could be any brakes applied for in the foreseeable future?

TOM FISHER [00:43:08] It’s a challenging question because, you know, all we can do as civil society is keep trying our best to influence things, however we however we can. On the negative side then, a lot of the debate has become increasingly polarized. And I think that’s dangerous because nobody is listening to each other. And, yes, it can be quite toxic. And it’s it’s a challenge when we think that civil society is anti all forms of ID, for instance, and those kind of do those kind of discourses.

On the more positive side of things, when I see what partners in Kenya and Uganda and all these kind of countries facing these challenges, the quality of the knowledge, the quality of the experience, the debate, the what they are doing, then that’s reason for hope, for coming up with solutions, coming up with coming up with answers to these kind of sets of problems. I think we need to move away from the kind of toxic discourse. I know that some listeners will think that organizations like Privacy International are being part of that, just from highlighting risks and dangers but you have to look at what we face when we when there is a relentless kind of positivity and ignoring of these kind of sets of risks and dangers and the negative effects and.

FRANK HERSEY [00:44:24] Yes. And I do think that the way that so many parts of life are moving online, controlled by apps, managed on our phones and computers, I can see that it will become hard to resist introducing digital ID systems, and then the whole system just snowballing from that sense. And I do wonder if in the future with the UN’s SDGs, 16.9 in particular, creating a sort of demand for ID, creating this goal, and then various organizations and the private sector really getting stuck in.

I wonder if it’s going to just evolve into something quite different from what was set out and whether at any point in the future we might look back and wonder whether this was allowed or sanctioned by the SDG at the beginning. Do you think that could be a possibility?

TOM FISHER [00:45:17] I think this rollout of kind of this requirement for you to give you an identity, or kind of verified, verified attributes within the various other digital ID systems. I think that’s a big concern that’s not being addressed. We designed the systems, for instance, in the UK currently working on the Trust Framework. There’s been a lot of engagement with civil society on that, I should say, but still not really kind of quite addressing that risk of, so that you need more and more uses for your digital ID, which isn’t necessarily good for privacy, but also inclusion and.

FRANK HERSEY [00:45:52] Surveillance.

TOM FISHER [00:45:54] That risks losing that ability to to type in a fake name when you’re on the Wi-Fi in a cafe. Losing so much from that change to the digital. Whereas there’s times when you have to show your ID, your ID card or your passports or whatever. But when showing that to someone, to a security guard, that glanced, checked the photo. That’s okay. Noticing the change there in the digital realm where this information is stored, processed, analysed, used to track all these kind of issues and that, as you say, that push for its use in more and more different contexts is something that’s something that we haven’t addressed. And how we how we begin to hope that there are there are ways.

I know in Singapore that there’s restrictions on what companies can store your ID number, things like that. So there are ways through various ways, but you’ve also got to remember that you’ve got a fundamental power relationship there. Whenever you’re asked for your ID, that person has kind of power over you, whether it’s a security guard preventing your access to a building, a police officer, the government asking you to give give information to access services, all these kind of things that there is that central power relationship there.

And that’s something which really puts kind of many of the current digital ID solutions – so much rests upon the individual, supposed consents to the sharing of information and things like that. I think that doesn’t take into account those kind of sets of power relations inherent within things like ID checks. That’s a major issue and challenges and things which I think we’re being slow in addressing with so much technological development in this sector. But in biometrics also in kind of various forms of identity, there’s still this kind of there’s still these kind of essential problems that are lying there and that’s edging towards some kind of solution there, which is both from technology or to regulation, all these kind of sets of issues, preventing kind of the function creep, the expansion, the need for more and more things, which is kind of the nature of ID systems to be used for more and more different things.

In many countries of course, that’s by design, because you need that private sector use to fund the system in the first place. You want government departments to make use of it. I think that’s that is a major challenge across the future.

FRANK HERSEY [00:48:12] The messaging is it has to be unique at all points. ID has to be unique. And the only way to ensure that is via biometrics. That seems to be the message promoted in Africa.

TOM FISHER [00:48:23] Uniqueness is a challenging concept, whether it’s linked to biometrics or not, obviously more so when there’s biometrics involved, because for a lot of uses of ID, it doesn’t need to be necessarily unique. If I want to establish my nationality, I’ve got my passport, I’ve got other documents, other forms of proof, I might get signed testimony from people who’ve known me for a long time.

These kind of things, you know, establishing uniqueness there isn’t necessarily the key point. Similarly, with financial inclusion, opening bank accounts, do we really need, is it necessary to be unique in all these kind of different contexts. Having these unique identities, I can’t curate my own. I’ve left myself open to so much more intrusive tracking  of me and profiling once everything is linked back to this single piece of paper or a single entry in a database. Whether whether you need uniqueness in a particular ID system depends entirely on what you are using it for. On top of that, you know that the move to biometrics was being kind of the only way to establish a uniqueness that also needs to be kind of critiqued because of the human rights concerns. Any, any kind of technology like that has to be necessary, proportionate to the lawful purpose, basically. So again, purpose, why are you doing this? But also, are there other ways of deduplication? Are there other ways of establishing these kind of things?

You’ve got to look at the evidence about why you can’t use things or immediately go to the more kind of intrusive and dangerous, risky technology. I just don’t see that being done. I don’t see that question of this evidence, and other ways in which we can begin to begin to look at this. The other side of that is we have we have these kind of issues preventing people accessing, say, government services that identity places in their way – can we remove those barriers altogether or can we lessen these barriers in other ways without introducing ID cards? Can we reform what documents people need to open a bank account, say?

If that’s our goal of financial inclusion, then okay, what ways can we streamline that process? Okay. We need peopel to have ID, schoolchildren to use biometrics to go to school to prevent fraud in the school system. Okay, well, what other ways can we do that without ID? And just simply the quantification of the problem, a lot of the time is just completely lacking. Okay, we want to prevent foreigners, foreign citizens using our hospitals. Okay. How big is that problem? To what extent is it, how much is that costing us? You know, what then? What risks are we introducing by introducing these kind of these type of systems?

FRANK HERSEY [00:50:57] So what sorts of messaging helps win an election, though?

TOM FISHER [00:51:00] I think the challenge is that, say, this big shiny idea of the kind of ID, digital ID, being the solution to everything, which as opposed to the kind of the tricky, dirty complex that not being one solution to so much of society’s ills. It’s, you know, it’s not going to help matters.

I can kind of see why the appeal if you have this one solution, which is amazing and fantastic and will it will be a solution to so many different problems as opposed to the kind of complex reality where it’s looking more at how the kind of reality of how these institutions work and operate and then how we can how we can solve these solve these problems without ID, how we could perhaps use more kinds, more forms of ID, open things up more in those countries where people have a wallet full of different cards. Why are we introducing another one to kind of form a link together all the others, as opposed to using what people have, where they come from.

But then also how we make these forms of IDs that emerge from the community to establish someone’s identity, things like vouching and other ways forward before we leap to this singular solution. If we’re going to present one model, which is which is perfect. I mean, I can kind of see an appeal there for something that you can do and you can stand up and do your TED Talk about as opposed to the reality, you know, of getting your hands dirty on the ground.

But then that’s why we have, you know, civil society organizations who are who are there with the community, emerging from the community and working with the community who understand these problems and can begin to develop the solutions.

FRANK HERSEY [00:52:37] Well, thank you so much. We’ve covered so many topics there with legal identity, biometrics, digital identity, possibly not needing identity. It’s been interesting to look at the role of civil society there and how there is something of a consensus building around some of the issues around identity and some hope, I think, in terms of some momentum growing and it’ll be interesting to see what happens if you get a response from the World Bank.

I know we’re hoping to speak to the World Bank on, well, their projects more generally and it will be interesting to hear about their thoughts on the letter that they have received. Thank you so much for spending the time to talk about these things and Privacy International’s viewpoint on these things. So thank you very much.

TOM FISHER [00:53:21] Thank you.

FRANK HERSEY [00:53:22] That was Tom Fisher, senior researcher at Privacy International.

We’re expecting to hear from ID4D and the World Bank very soon on their projects and approach.

In our discussions with ID4D so far, their team have raised a few issues that they want to bring clarity on. The World Bank is not providing technical assistance nor financing specifically for Kenya’s National Integrated Identity Management System, which operates the Huduma Namba system against which Tom Fisher is an expert witness.

Previous World Bank funding and assistance was for strengthening civil registration and vital statistics.

They also point out that in the Philippines, while they are providing funding and assistance for the Philippines Identification System, or Phil Sys, they are not requiring a link with that system to the welfare system.

The Philippine Department of Social Welfare Development has initiated a pilot with PhilSys that recognizes PhilID as an ID for beneficiaries, among other credentials, something the World Bank noted as a good reform.

We hope to bring you an episode with the team soon, on what they’ve been doing and not been doing.

In the meantime, to find out more about legal identity, the UN goals and to listen to all our episodes and get the transcripts, go to ID one six nine dot com and see if you think we’re on track for 2030.