This deep dive with the UN’s former head of legal identity explores the issue of using biometrics in identity, how much control we should have over our identities, transgender rights to assert identity (and what happens when they die), the dangers of including religion or ethnicity, and how progress is going towards the UN Sustainable Development Goal of identity for all by 2030.
“Dead people can cause a lot of trouble. Dead people can access pensions, dead people can inherit things,” says Niall McCann of the UNDP.
Death registration is as important as birth registration for understanding a country and even political stability: “The one thing that dead people can’t do is start a war, attack governments.”
This deep dive with the UN’s former head of legal identity explores the issue of using biometrics in identity, how much control we should have over our identities, transgender rights to assert identity (and what happens when they die), the dangers of including religion or ethnicity, and how progress is going towards the UN Sustainable Development Goal of identity for all by 2030.
And did they get their goals wrong?
02:45 Children without birth registration are behind from the beginning
03:52 Birth registration as a way for detecting infanticide
05:10 Issue of parents not seeing the benefit of birth registration
06:28 Still need to prioritize birth registration when adult ID schemes are operating, otherwise children left out – have to link to birth register
07:50 Use digital methods if you can register births quicker
08:21 Unease around biometric capture for children, tech to follow biometrics through life
11:15 Tracking biometrics for whole life, centralized vs decentralized storage
13:37 Digital ID can be counted as legal ID
13:52 What happens when biometrics become the core identifier? What happens to gender?
14:40 Demands from individuals to control identity due to biometrics
15:38 Everybody should know what identity data is held on them by the state
17:00 Transgender adults should be able to self-assert sex on documents
20:26 Zero knowledge proofs (why does a bar get to see your whole ID to check you’re of age to drink)
22:10 Religion, ethnicity should not be part of legal identity
23:10 Women should not be prevented from registering a child when no male relative is present
24:00 What happens when the birth certificate issuer is not recognized, eg ISIS?
25:23 Legal identity in refugee situations
26:33 Urging countries to issue legal identity without having to confer nationality
28:27 Importance of death registration – “dead people can cause a lot of trouble”
33:12 Centralized vs decentralized identity databases
35:04 Will the UN issue standards on facial recognition biometrics for population registration?
37:43 We need to be able to gauge whether we’re making progress towards SDG 16.9, interim goal of 350 million registrations by 2025
39:39 SDG indicator issue: adults registered for ID might not be counted as the goal is children under the age of 5
42:45 How UN agencies, organizations help countries establish and improve civil registration – as long as it’s for the right reasons
44:28 When a country wanted to put ethnic affiliation on national ID cards
46:34 Conflicting identities – what happens when a transgender person changes their gender and later dies? Which gender is on the death certificate?
Natosafe for capturing the fingerprints of newborns in Brazil.
Find out more about the podcast and the importance of legal identity at https://id169.com
FRANK HERSEY: Welcome to episode two of ID16.9 where we delve into the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal for everyone on Earth to have a legal identity by 2030. We’re looking at why a billion people have no formal way of proving who they are, how this affects their lives and whether things are getting better or worse.
I’m your host and producer, Frank Hersey, reporter at Biometric Update, the team behind this podcast. In this episode, get ready for…
NIALL MCCANN: Dead people can cause a lot of trouble. Dead people can access pensions, dead people can inherit things.
FRANK HERSEY: Yes. Legal identity also depends on death registration.
NIALL MCCANN: The one thing that dead people can’t do is start a war, attack governments etcetera. So I think that’s probably one of the reasons why death registration gets overlooked.
FRANK HERSEY: We’ll hear about the role of biometrics in legal identity.
NIALL MCCANN: I think it’s fairly likely in the coming years that they will say look, facial recognition data is not an appropriate biometric to be using as a core means to identify a person.
FRANK HERSEY:And we may not have to wait until the 2030 deadline for an update on progress towards a legal identity for all.
NIALL MCCANN: We set a target of at least 350 million by 2025. We have to be able to count those people. We have to be able to get governments to report.
FRANK HERSEY: But the UN may have made things difficult for itself with its indicators. What’s been happening with digital identity schemes doesn’t necessarily match how progress is being measured. In our first episode, we heard a quick introduction to a legal identity from Niall McCann, Policy Advisor and Program Manager for Legal Identity at the UNDP. Now, McCann joins us now from Brussels to add some flesh to the bones of legal identity issues. Welcome back to the podcast.
NIALL MCCANN: Thanks a lot Frank, glad to be here again.
FRANK HERSEY: In episode one you explained issues around legal identity and the importance of birth registration and I’d like to go into that in a little more detail because many people live in places where birth registration is routine, not something anyone thinks twice about. But this is certainly not the case everywhere. How about we start with why it’s so important to register births and why does this remain a challenge in certain areas.
NIALL MCCANN: Yes, it’s a very very good question Frank and it is incredibly important. I mean we certainly feel within the UN system that if a child goes beyond the first number of months of its life without having its birth registered and without its birth certificate being issued, then the >>>> chances of that child falling behind in terms of access to early childhood education, in terms of access to early childhood vaccinations for various diseases, the risks of that child ending up in a very, very vulnerable position are very much inflated if the child has not managed to access to birth registration.
And we only need to even think about questions like how would you count the number of children, you know, in a country if you do not have a record of the registration of a child’s birth, you know, so for for many, many demographic reasons, if you look at it from the state’s point of view, for example, for many, many demographic reasons, also in terms of things like figuring out whether baby girls or young girls can access early childhood education or early childhood vaccinations at the same level of boys. It’s incredibly difficult unless we have comprehensive birth registration in a country.
>> Things like, unfortunately, you know, we have to refer to them, things like female infanticide or countries where baby girls tend to be quite gruesomely killed sometimes because they’re the wrong sex for what the parent feels is appropriate or if the society is very much geared towards progressing boys or valuing baby boys more than baby girls. You can’t really assess the extent to which that is an issue if all children’s births are not registered, you know? So these are some of the reasons why we think birth registration is incredibly important.
Now, we’re very aware of course, however, that birth registration or low rates of birth registration. This has been an ongoing problem for decades across many, many parts of the world. And you have to ask yourself a question. Well, why hasn’t it been solved? You know, and we tend to find the problems tend to be just general under-investment by governments. I guess there is a certain inertia and then a certain you know lack of functioning of public administration in general in a lot of these countries, countries often suffer as well, of course from you know major climate or geography challenges where it’s quite difficult for mothers to be able to access birth registration services.
>>> Sometimes unfortunately people do not see the benefit necessarily of their child having their birth registered. And so this has tended to some of the reasons why over the years birth registration has gone unimplemented in a lot of countries and we’re very, very aware and very conscious of the fact that many countries in recent decades have looked at this reality which is that these young babies grow into children who then grow into teenagers who then grow into adults who may have gone their entire life actually without ever having the means to prove who they are by referring back to a birth certificate. And of course in recent years many of these countries have introduced then these digital ID schemes or various former nationalized schemes for a number of reasons and one of which is to try and capture those people whose birth was never registered.
We are aware that that governments are investing in that and on the face of it are completely supportive of those type of schemes as long of course as there is a thorough comprehensive data protection and privacy, institutional and legal framework. But one major issue I think and one >>> major policy priority of the UN is that we do feel it is important when countries do introduce these national idea or digital ID schemes is they have to maintain appropriate levels of investment in the birth registration system as well. Because we do worry whether if a country introduces a new digital ID scheme for adults basically, and these schemes are largely targeted at adults, is that going to leave children, vulnerable children, in an even more vulnerable situation. So that’s why in the UN we’re constantly advising countries, please, you have to link the birth registration system with any form of adult digital ID or national ID scheme.
FRANK HERSEY: And with this, you mentioned earlier, this inertia for civil registration and then we’re seeing wave after wave of new technology for cards, digital ID, biometrics, is there any sense of that there’s just a sort of lack of enthusiasm? Does it just feel like old hat going through civil registration? Is it boring? Are people just distracted by new, shiny things?
NIALL MCCANN: Well I mean we would certainly think that new digital technologies have a very, very important role to play here and that can significantly help to increase the overall levels of birth registration. And I know our colleagues in UNICEF who have the primary mandate around supporting birth registration per se feel the same way.
>>> I mean if you can register children’s births quicker and more comprehensively using digital means then cumbersome traditional paper-based means, then by all means let’s go down that road. So we see nothing but positives there with regards to the use of digital technology as long as like I said if they’re in an overall data protection and privacy environment that is thorough and comprehensive and appropriate.
>>>> Now, where we would have a little bit of unease would be around use of biometric or capturing of biometric data from children for example in particular in a global environment where standards in this area have not really been well developed at all, and we are working with some of our other UN colleagues from UNICEF from the World Food Program, from UNHCR etcetera to try and basically come up with some standards on the overall use of biometric technology for for population registration. Because for example it is quite clear that when it comes to things like consent and informed consent, I mean a baby cannot consent to give its biometric data. And the technology is out there now and has been tested and is very, very close to being commercially available where countries could start to accurately capture biometric data from newborn children and in a manner that does allow the same biometric data to be used to identify that child when that child moves forward or grows and gets older.
There is no point really if you think about it, about capturing biometric data from a person if that biometric data cannot be used to identify the same person a number of years later on. And of course given that the speed at which children, babies and children develop, you have to ask yourself the question is there much point in taking biometric data from a very, very young child if you can’t identify that same child when that child is older using the same biometric data. But that tech is out there now and it’s getting better constantly. And that of course means it is possible to biometrically identify newborns and have that data follow that person throughout their life cycle.
FRANK HERSEY: I’m going to duck us out of this conversation for a moment as we have an update on the very thing Niall McCann is talking about here. Since we recorded this plus a few more conversations to get the first episodes ready to release at once, we’ve seen a commercially available fingerprint scanner for newborns on show at the ID4Africa summit in Marrakech.
Natosafe, part of Akiyama, has deployed special scanners in hospitals in six Brazilian states and has registered approaching 300,000 babies. The system checks the mother’s ID and creates a new biometric profile for her, if necessary, then takes all 10 of the baby’s fingerprints, and links the mother and baby’s profiles. Then there’s a layer of AI which predicts what the baby’s fingerprints will be like in the future, such as a couple of days later when the hospital can do a biometric check to make sure the mother is leaving the maternity ward with the right baby, or much further into childhood for missing persons searches. It can also be used in schools and for vaccination programs. There’s a link to that in our show notes. But for now back to Niall McCann.
>>> NIALL MCCANN: And we can debate, to be honest, how much of a good thing is that, you know? There are a lot of concerns in the privacy community that by having biometric data from newborn children throughout the lifecycle until a person dies, that that’s not necessarily a positive, particularly if we don’t have a comprehensive, thorough data protection or privacy environment. And of course this leads to all these other questions then about the appropriateness as we move later in life whether there would be sort of one core identity or one core database of a population linking birth registration through to national ID registration through to death registration. How appropriate is it that that data would all be centralized in one place or decentralized and managed by different government agencies according to the particular mandates of those agencies? And of course that’s a big policy debate throughout the international development community at the moment.
FRANK HERSEY: And how relevant is that to legal identity? Is that just going beyond what’s necessary for a legal identity for a person or the biometrics and the databases?
NIALL MCCANN: I think there’s two points there. We would argue in the UN that once your birth certificate has been issued and your birth has been registered by the legally appropriate-agency in your country you have legal identity. That’s no debate there. There was some debate I think when we were discussing with some other colleagues in the international development community that if your birth was never registered or if you don’t have your birth certificate and then you are issued a digital ID number when you’re an adult do you have legal identity? Because of course if you refer back to the SDG target [it] does say legal identity including birth registration.
But we came to the conclusion that if you’re a country that has set up by law a registration authority whose job it is to register adults, which can be as young now in some countries as five years of age, actually, not not the definition of adults, but these agencies can be registering children for digital IDs from as young as five years of age. You can’t turn around to that country and tell them that that person doesn’t have legal identity later on in life.
>>>So we have accepted that if you don’t have a birth certificate but you do have a digital ID issued by the state, that you do have legal identity.
A question of course becomes, and this is a question very much for the future, and it’s a very >>>> fascinating question, is that if biometric data becomes in many ways the really core identity variable that identifies you or authenticates you as an individual to the state moving forward in life, well then what happens to things like names and what happens to things like genders, for example? I mean if the biometrics is the core, which you cannot change, then why shouldn’t you be able to change your name, or indeed change your gender, far more easily than it has been the case up to this point for many, many countries since civil registration systems started in the last 100, 150 years. And I think that’s something we’re going to see a lot more of in the future.
>>> Governments accepting demands from citizens to give the individual far more control over identity variables such as name and gender because the biometric data is included in the core identity system and that is the identity variable that cannot be changed and so thus becomes in many ways the core identity variable by which we are all identified to the state.
FRANK HERSEY: So do you think individuals could or should at some point in the future be able to directly access their records and maybe even modify them themselves?
NIALL MCCANN: Yes that’s one of the key policy challenges I think, Frank, that’s being debated a lot now in the international development community. People always talk when you go to identity conferences, when we see online an awful lot of literature talks about the rights of individuals to control their identity data. And of course when you drill down and say what do you mean by control?
>>>> I mean everybody, we would argue in the UN for sure, everybody should have some ability to know what identity data is being held on them by the state and how is the state using that identity data? That seems pretty noncontroversial to us. That seems like a basic human right. And indeed there are some countries now, some of the more advanced, I think digitally advanced countries, that go as far as to inform their citizens. We needed to access your social security data today to cross reference it against taxation because the taxation authorities were a little bit confused. Was it you in fact that that submitted your tax returns? So we have we have let them access your social security data just so that you know and if you have a problem with that you can address the data protection on this person etcetera.
All of that seems very, very good in terms of giving the person a sense that they have some control over their data. But when you move to things like, well, controlling my data means modifying, amending, deleting data, I think that’s a step a lot of countries are going to be very, very reluctant to move down. At least without the person going through some process.
>>>>For example, we do think in general now an adult person, an adult transgender person, should be able to tell the government my passport, my driving license, my national ID card reflects the sex that was recorded when I was born on my birth certificate. I, however, identify differently these days and I want my documents to reflect that reality. So we do think in general, a process should be gone through where the person simply self asserts this important element to their identity and that they’re able to have their identity documents reissued to reflect the person that they believe themselves to be.
But giving the power to the person to themselves make that change online, potentially without the government even knowing about it, no, that I think is a step too far, at least it’s a step that governments, they’re not going to be willing to cede that authority over identity data to an individual.
FRANK HERSEY: As I edit this episode together, listening back to everything now McCann has to say on identity, I realized myself just how big a topic this is. Do not worry if these issues are coming at you quick fire. In this episode we’re getting an overview of the legal identity landscape. We’ll be coming back to all these topics in more detail as we go on. For now, let’s go back to Niall McCann, himself taking a step back from the issue of individuals having the right to make changes to their identity profile.
NIALL MCCANN: And when you zoom out from that type of an example, I think it does raise very, very fundamental and very, very important questions about ultimately, who are you? Who am I as an individual? Am I who I say I am, or am I who the government says I am? And where are the correct and appropriate boundaries there? Because one thing, I think in the context of gender identity discussions that we possibly have not factored in enough of the discussion into is that do we all somehow have certain rights to each other’s identities. Right?
And what I mean by that is, while it may be appropriate for you and I or anybody to be able to hide our age, for example, for certain purposes, do certain government agencies really need to know our date of birth for particular functions? No, potentially. So why do we have to share a date of birth in a lot of cases? But if you take something like the right to vote or the right to draw on a public pension, you know, that’s absolutely predicated on our date of birth. Nobody should be able to access the right to vote or access a public pension before they’re entitled to by virtue of their age.
So nobody should be in a position to change their age, right? And nobody should be in a position to hide their date of birth from the government when it comes to something like registering to vote because the government has to affirm that you are in fact over the age of entitlement to vote. So those are identity variables where I think it would be a lot more complex and, and I don’t see contexts where governments would ever allow an individual to change that data about whether the government will allow people to hide particular parts of that, those data fields, I do think it’s quite appropriate indeed.
>>>> And in fact we are moving towards a system technologically of course where things like what are termed zero knowledge proofs will become more and more prevalent in the management of identity management systems. The example we always give in this case, for example, if you are a young person wanting to go into a bar to purchase alcohol, well, the bar needs to know that you are legally entitled to do that. So what does the bar need to know? The bar needs to know that you’re over the age at which it’s legal to buy alcohol, but the bar does not necessarily need to know your actual age. They don’t need to know that you’re 23 years, seven months, four weeks and two days.
They need to know a yes or no answer. Yes over 18. No under 18. So can you design identity management systems in terms of digital IDs or indeed smartphone-based systems whether it be on QR codes or whatever, where the individual will simply have their identity and their age in this case authenticated on a zero knowledge proof basis. The bar does not need to know your name, your address, your height, your eye color. It simply needs to know yes or no, are you over the age of which alcohol can be legally purchased in this country? And we are moving towards that. I think we will see a lot more of that in the in the years ahead.
FRANK HERSEY: You mentioned previously the sorts of things that the UN sees as part of somebody’s legal identity such as date of birth, sex, etcetera. Do you think there are any fields that should not be included in legal identity?
>>>> NIALL MCCANN: Yes. We do think things like religion, religious affiliation and indeed ethnicity. These are data fields and identity variables that are more appropriate for the individual to assert or affirm whether they in fact identify with those data fields. We are nervous about people automatically registering a child, for example, as a member of a particular religious or ethnic group. That doesn’t seem appropriate to us. And so we would never encourage that type of an identity variable to be included on something like a birth certificate.
Also, by the way, if you move beyond simply identity variables of the individual that may not be appropriate, there are also many, many ways unfortunately in which governments discriminating against women in particular when it comes to things like registering their child’s birth that we also think are inappropriate.
>>>> No woman, for example should be prevented from registering her child’s birth without the presence of some kind of a male relative or indeed a husband or spouse, because a child should absolutely not suffer and the mother should absolutely not suffer. So we always think that a woman should be entitled to register the birth of a child individually and not dependent on any other person in her life. Those are probably the main identity variables. The overall things like religion and ethnicity that we would be very, very concerned about.
If you don’t mind, I want to raise one other issue that’s very, very complex. And I think a lot of governments and indeed the UN agencies are struggling a lot with these days which is you can have a birth certificate issued by an authority but that authority itself is not recognized. And this is, an obvious case, for example, would be birth certificates issued by non-state armed groups, violent extremists that have taken over control of the country or parts of the country, in some cases for many years.
That group is not recognized as a legitimate government by the international community. So what you do then about certificates that are issued by that group for children. Now again, children should not suffer. You know, the child has done nothing wrong. And indeed we have visited, I have visited myself a couple of countries recently that looked at birth certificates issued by ISIS, for example, and said, look, you know, we don’t recognize the authority of this group to issue the certificate. But we’re not going to question the identity variables of the child whose data is recorded on the certificate. So we are going to accept the child’s date of birth, the child’s name, for example, as proof who that child is. And then perhaps issue our own certificate on top of that, that authenticates the identity credential, even if a very cumbersome paper based system issued by a non state armed group.
FRANK HERSEY: And is that something that the UN helps with in a sort of crisis situation or post-crisis situation on the ground?
>>>> NIALL MCCANN: One element of the Refugee convention, the 1961 Refugee Convention, all member states of the UN that have accepted that in the absence of legal identity and when people vulnerable, whether it be refugees, stateless persons, persons internally displaced or displaced across geographical areas, where the actual border of the country is not not exactly identified either. In cases where UNHCR, the refugee agency, conducts a registration of those people, member states of the UN will recognize that identity as issued by UNHCR as proof of legal identity. And that’s a very, very positive thing because if they didn’t then you would find people in even more vulnerable situations. I mean UNHCR caters in their client populations for tens of millions of people around the world and many people’s identity in terms of being able to prove their identity is their only identity that they have is the one that UNHCR accepted and issued a document to attest to.
We therefore do agree in cases where UNHCR, in discussions with local national governments, does try to encourage the government to also register those people in the national civil registration and identity management system. And of course you see cases unfortunately where this affects stateless people in particular where governments are very reluctant. They accept that these people live on their territory but of course because they don’t want to recognize them as citizens of their country they’re very reluctant also then to issue documents like birth certificates or national IDs for fear that that may give those people a greater attachment or a greater right to nationality and citizenship. And so in these cases we do support UNHCR’s efforts to convince and lobby to these governments. Look you can still issue the child’s birth certificate, you can still issue a national ID, a document. You can still acknowledge that these people are here at the very least without having to discuss and decide on the nationality and citizenship issues straight away. That can be part of a different legal process.
FRANK HERSEY: There’s many different elements at stake here. You can maybe not be registered at birth. Or even if your birth is registered events where you’re living later in life can can change, can mean that what you registered with first is no longer valid. Somebody may have to seek to be re-registered somewhere. But one of the reasons I was so keen to have you on the podcast is because you are often keen to talk about another stage in civil registry and that’s death registration. If you could talk a little bit about why that’s so important and maybe why it gets overlooked.
>>> NIALL MCCANN: It gets overlooked I think, Frank, because dead people can cause a lot of trouble. Dead people can can access pensions. Dead people can inherit things. Dead people can access various welfare programs etcetera. And making sure the dead people aren’t doing things like accessing all of these public services and more brutally from a political standpoint, voting, for example, is incredibly important.
But of course the one thing dead people can’t do is start a war, attack governments etcetera. You know so I think that’s probably one of the reasons why death registration gets overlooked. But it is hugely important for the other reasons I just mentioned and to be honest with you there’s an economist that I listen to quite a lot internationally. He says if the greatest single data point or statistic that shows the development of a country, it’s not things like GDP, it’s not income per individual. It’s the strength of their vital statistics system.
Is everybody’s birth registered? Is everybody’s death registered? If you don’t have comprehensive death registration then you do not have comprehensive data on causes of death. You do not have comprehensive data on mortality rates. If you don’t know who’s dead or alive in your country then you don’t know what is causing people to die. If you don’t have comprehensive death registration then we do not know how prevalent and how challenging fighting a disease or virus like COVID-19 is. So these are very, very important questions.
Equally as well, I do think if you’re managing a national ID system, whether that be a national ID card system, a national population register or a digital ID system. If there’s a problem with death registration in your country and the death registration is not linked to those systems to make sure that the dead person’s identity is retired once the dead person dies, and if that gets to be known politically in the country as well, well then there can be a serious lack of confidence in the integrity of the identity management system. And indeed this does happen, unfortunately, quite a lot in the electoral arena. If there’s a public perception or a perception among political parties that dead people are out there and dead people are voting, not literally out there, but they are voting because other people are using dead persons’ identities to vote. Well, then there’s a major, major political challenge in that country.
So maintaining the integrity of an identity management and civil registration system so that people know that the dead people are in fact dead, A, and B, that they’ve been removed from databases that entitle people to certain services or rights. That’s incredibly important. And it hasn’t been prioritized enough I feel in the whole discussion around legal identity in the last number of years.
FRANK HERSEY: Yes, I think we’re seeing more and more countries introducing biometric checks on pensioners, just as really as a proof of life check whether it’s every six months or every year to require that pensioners come in to perhaps a bank branch to check their biometrics against what’s captured in an exercise specifically for pensioners. So it sounds like it is a very important marker for a country. Do you think this — I know we’ve been through the millennial development goals, Millennium Development Goals now onto the Sustainable. Do you think if there’s a future set of goals for the UN this is significant enough to be added?
NIALL MCCANN: Definitely, yeah. You want in a perfect world, every child’s birth is registered and every person’s death is also registered and that there is an identity, a traceable identity, from birth to death. Now the person might go through different identities in life. A very obvious case is would be women for example that take their husband’s name when they get married. As long as the state knows that it’s the same person moving through life with different names for example — and indeed I come back to something like gender — if it is a country where people do allow trans people to you know, have their documents reissued as long as there is that traceability from birth to death, then these developments should be in many ways applauded.
The bigger policy debate of course is around the extent again to which it’s one database or different database managed by different agencies. The old centralized versus decentralized question, because of course if you centralize all identity data in one place well then that creates the single point of failure. It creates the enormous honeypot for hackers and indeed the public, the general public is incredibly suspicious, not just in more authoritarian countries, but in most countries.
The idea that there’s simply one database, one identity database from birth to death managed by the one state agency which could be in some countries the police for example or an interior ministry, the public is going to be very, very suspicious of this and with good reason in a lot of cases. So, we would have in the UN no problem at all with multiple databases as long as there’s interoperability between them to the point where the various government agencies know that the same Niall McCann registered for taxation purposes is in fact the same Niall McCann registered for social security and who has a driving license, who has a passport. It doesn’t have to be the one database but there has to be a means by which the government knows that is the same person. Because if the government doesn’t know it’s the same person, well then there are major major challenges around the overall accuracy of your demographics as well. If I get counted twice in a census or whatever, a household survey, because they don’t know that Niall Joseph McCann is the same person as Niall McCann, then we have a problem, you know.
FRANK HERSEY: And I suppose these databases would also come with necessary controls as to who can access and also who can link databases for tracking individuals.
NIALL MCCANN: Absolutely. And we do see this a lot now with with new technologies such as facial recognition biometrics. I mean in general even though the UN has not issued standards around the use of this technology in population registration, I do think that’s coming by the way, and within the UN system it is the Economic and Social Council, ECOSOC, which is a member state orgam of the UN, like the General Assembly, ECOSOC has the standards around issuance of civil registration identity management systems. They have not yet issued standards around the use of biometrics or which particular biometrics to use etcetera. But I think it’s fairly likely in the coming years that they will say look facial recognition data is not an appropriate biometric to be using as a core means to identify a person. Because unlike things like fingerprints or thumbprints, you as the individual always know, you know when when the government is going to use your biometrics your fingerprint or thumbprint to identify you because they ask you to put your fingerprint or thumbprint on a reader.
You don’t know when a CCTV camera system based on street corners is identifying you via facial recognition means. And while that may be appropriate in the state security, state intelligence services counterterrorism field, it seems absolutely inappropriate for general population registration. And again if the people feel, look, because they took my facial recognition data as a core biometric to identify me in the civil registration and identity management system, now the state is in this Big Brother all encompassing mode where they can identify when I’m walking down the street, that’s bad. That’s not good. And we have seen cities like San Francisco then, you know, pass ordinance banning the use of technology like that in the general population registration field and I think we’re likely to see that at the UN level in the coming years.
FRANK HERSEY: Well, it’s certainly something for us to keep an eye on. And I think going back to perhaps a stricter definition of legal identity, because we’ve talked about births and deaths and registration as an adult, I’m looking at the Sustainable Development Goals, we’re about halfway through now towards 2030, I was just wondering what you might think we have so far in terms of progress towards those goals. Towards the goal for legal identity, not all 17 goals.
NIALL MCCANN: Yes, again, it’s tough. it is tough to measure. We’re very conscious that we need to measure it. We need to be able to gauge where we are. You know, if the figure that we started out with was a billion, and we’re trying to get to zero, what we really do need to know this number of years in to the SDG process, how close we are to getting to that goal.
The target, we set ourselves as sort of an interim target within the UN legal identity agenda task force which like I said, includes all of the agencies active in the space like UNDP, UNICEF, UNHCR, etcetera. We set a target of at least 350 million by 2025. We have to be able to count those people, we have to be able to get governments to report. And that does mean giving them comprehensive definitions of what do we mean when we we tell them, tell us the number of people without legal identity.
Well, do the governments know themselves and can they define it? Can they give us the data? So that’s why again, via our colleagues in the UN Population Fund UNFPA, we are working at the moment of coming up with a more robust methodology to allow governments to count the number of people that they believe are on their territory without legal identity. Because of course, if somebody is living there whose birth was never registered and isn’t registered in a digital ID scheme, you may not in fact even know that that person is there. You know, that if in particular if you’re only conducting a census and not particularly well once every 10 years or so. If borders are porous, if people are moving nomadic populations moving across borders, people may in fact be living to all intents and purposes for years in your country, but you’re not even aware that they’re present. And so counting those people, if you don’t even know they’re on your territory, can be quite challenging in terms of meeting the legal identity goal.
FRANK HERSEY: Of course. And just in the few years up until 2030 are there any other milestones we should be looking out for? Is the a date in mind for any sort of reassessment of progress before 2030?
NIALL MCCANN: One thing I should have mentioned so far and I didn’t mention, there was an indicator set that allowed us to measure progress under SDG target 16.9 and it’s the proportion of children under the age of five whose birth has been registered. Right? But again of course 100% birth registration is what we’re looking for. But for countries that have not achieved that, but who might be registering their adults later in life. 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, ie. proportion of children under the age of five, his birth was registered, you’re not going to be captured in that data. So that’s why 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 in a digital ID scheme do have legal identity, you know. But I think that’s a lesson that will be learned for the next period beyond the SDG’s. And of course the complexity of this issue may not have been overly obvious at the time when the SDG target and its indicator was set. By 2025 annd of course by 2030 we are going to have comprehensive data of whether the indicator was met and to what degree. But in the event that we are short and that there’s still 10, 50, 100 million people, I don’t know, without legal identity under the terms of the indicator ie. if there’s X number of children under the age of five whose birth has not been registered, I do think you will see a lot of additional data be published if the world has made substantial progress in registering adults who previously did not have legal identity because their birth was never registered and who don’t have or cannot access digital idea or national ID card systems in a country.
If the country has made comprehensive progress on rollout of national IDs, digital IDs, more thorough implementation of a national identity register etcetera, and those people are captured, I do think that data will come out for sure at the time when there’s publication of the overall data results, progress under the SDG targets at both 2025 and 2030.
FRANK HERSEY: It does make sense as well to get a clearer overview by the end of the goals. Then just one last question about the sort of essence of the SDG 16.9, is it something that you and colleagues keep in mind sort of regularly? Is it something that is within reach for you when you’re working on projects as as as a goal? Just wondering how sort of integral the goal is for you?
NIALL MCCANN: Well, absolutely. I mean I mean countries come to either the World Bank or the UN and indeed many, many civil society and non governmental organizations. You know, there’s excellent groups out there like Plan International, there’s all these members of the Global CRVS Group, Vital Strategies, some of the work of other intergovernmental organizations like like the Pacific Community CARICOM. Many, many organizations that are supporting governments to assist in the implementation of what we call the legal identity agenda, and are making an awful lot of progress on that and it is absolutely integral and we do have in our own case in UNDP and UNICEF and in some of the UN agencies, we have governments coming to us saying look we have a legal identity problem, we have X number of our children not registered, we have adults not registered. We want to design a national ID system. We want to link it with the civil registration system, births and deaths. Will you help us in that regard? And of course we’re always happy to say yes.
Happy to say yes of course, along with an assessment to whether this system is going to be used primarily to empower people with rights and empower the government to be able to produce comprehensive vital statistics. We would be very, very reluctant and loath to assist a government if we felt that this system is going to be used to target people, to profile people, to attack particular vulnerable groups. And I think there may be cases where we would politely decline and say we’re not going to help you in these areas because we don’t think what you’re doing is correct.
I do recall a couple of years ago a government said to the UN and other international partners, we want to roll out a national ID scheme and we are going to put the ethnic affiliation of each citizen on the card. We’re actually going to write it on the national ID card. And that was a case where the UN and the other international partners refused to help and said look we’re we’re not going to help you if you do that because that’s not appropriate. There isn’t a logical reason and a pro-citizen reason why you should put somebody’s personal data like ethnic affiliation, which the person may not themselves even acknowledge or recognize by the way, put that on an identity document. Whatever about recording data like that additionally in a database in a manner that protects privacy. And I did speak about the reluctance that we have indeed to even see that included in the databases. But whatever about the database issue, putting it on a public facing document seems like inherently a bad thing to do and and we refused to help the government do that.
So overall though, the legal identity agenda does play a hugely important roles in our support to governments that ask for this. I guess the last thing I would say and why this remains such a fascinating policy area, Frank, as well as that when you think about it, if you have a birth certificate that says you’re Niall McCann, but then you grow up in life and you become more known as a nickname for example, or indeed a second name, which in my case would be Joseph. And then if I in my own case, for example, if I ended up marrying a spouse and then me taking that person’s family name, well then it’s possible I could have a passport or indeed a national ID card with an entirely different identity than what was recorded on my birth certificate. And given that a national ID card does act as proof of legal identity, it does kind of raised the question can a person have more than one legal identity and what to do in cases where some of those identities may in fact be conflicting.
And I guess an example of where you could have a really, really difficult legal issue to get through is again in the case of for example a transgender person who has been facilitated to change a national ID card and indeed change the gender marker on an ID card, so that the person recorded at birth now has a different name and gender. And when that person dies, then what does the death certificate say? Who in fact died? Did the identity from the birth certificate die or did the identity from the national ID card die? You know, these are comprehensive, complex questions around identity management and around legal identity that I think a lot of governments are having to deal more and more with these days as people are facilitated to be able to have more so called control over their identity data. And it’s why I’ll probably hopefully keep working in this field for many years to come.
FRANK HERSEY: I hope so too. Well thank you so much. It’s been really great to hear about all these different issues. It sort of fills me with a lot of a lot of hope. I can I can see that the conversation has moved on significantly even since the Sustainable Development Goals were set in 2015. And also there’s just so much to explore in this series and all being well we’ll be hearing from you again at some point in the future. But thank you so much for spending the time to talk through so many of these issues which are really going to set up the whole series.
NIALL MCCANN: Thanks a lot, Frank. My pleasure.
FRANK HERSEY: Thank you. Niall McCann, outgoing Policy Advisor and Program Manager for Legal Identity at the UNDP, demonstrating a huge amount of expertise there as he finished that role at the UNDP. We’ll no doubt hear from him again and his successor. Do please join us again for episode three where we look at just one issue. Well, one set of issues. We’re talking to Annina Wersun from OpenCRVS about the role of technology in improving civil registration, the backbone of legal identity.
ANNINA WERSUN: Birth occurs and everyone is celebrating, it’s a joy. It’s not necessarily the first priority is I want to go and do some paperwork, right?
FRANK HERSEY: In the meantime, for all episodes and links to the stories and organizations we mentioned, check out our website ID169.com