2020 is a landmark year for governmental digital transformation and the adoption of digital ID technologies. Now more than ever before, governance is digital: elections, identification, participatory governance, and civic engagement facilitated through ICTs have reached remarkable levels. Politics and government can simultaneously exist and function both online and offline.
In theory, the digital transformation of governments has the power to improve political inclusivity and build resilient mechanisms to ensure accountability and participation in all aspects of governance. Innovating governmental processes has the potential to solve age-old issues, such as corruption or voter fraud. Yet in practice, innovation may bring disruption to both the practice and norms of governments. If left unguided and unaccompanied by critical measures such as building capacity, inclusiveness, and cybersecurity, governments’ journeys of digital transformation jeopardize exacerbating an already profound digital divide at the national and global levels.
Without network readiness, adequate skills, and a regulatory framework that protects privacy and fosters ethics, innovative technologies can undermine the pillars of democratic governments and create malign space for unethical surveillance, disinformation campaigns, and information monopolies, for example. Building readiness is the first and foremost challenge faced by governments ready to transform themselves and the societies they govern. If executed correctly, designing and implementing a nationwide digital identification system may be a great way to enhance this critical readiness and skills.
What are Digital IDs?
A digital ID is defined as the equivalent of a classical traditional identifier (such as a physical ID card), but instead, in digital format. Unlike a paper-based ID, such as most driver’s licenses and passports, a digital ID can be verified remotely over digital channels. While biometric ID remains the predominant form of digital ID globally, emerging technologies like blockchain-based, mobile-controlled, and algorithmic identifications are the subject of growing interest by governments undergoing digital transformation.
Digital ID enables individuals to unlock value and benefit as they interact with governments, companies, and other individuals in various roles: as consumers, workers, microenterprises, taxpayers and beneficiaries, citizens, and owners. For this reason, digital IDs undoubtedly present governments with many advantages, particularly given that they add efficiency to governmental services by consolidating multiple official identities into one unique identifier, thus making interactions with governments both frictionless and efficient.
An estimated one billion people worldwide do not have basic ID credentials—including as many as 1 in 4 children and youth whose births have never been registered—and many more have unverified, poor quality IDs that offer little value for interacting with government services. One estimate by the McKinsey Global Institute records that even though some 3.4 billion individuals possess some form of ID, they cannot use it properly in the digital world. To this end, digital IDs have the power to transform inclusion: for instance, efforts to implement digital IDs could improve women’s economic inclusion, given that 45% of women in low-income countries lack identification, compared to just 30% of men.
Additionally, digital IDs offer governments a way to curb corruption by improving transparency in governance, from the application of resources to accountability. Other governance barriers are removed by the adoption of digital IDs, as they require the digitization of government services, thus improving the availability of 24/7 services and the ability of citizens to exercise their rights without the limitation of office opening hours or expensive travel. Beyond curbing corruption, improving inclusion and increasing transparent governance, digital IDs are incredibly convenient, for citizens and governments alike.
Yet, digital IDs are not a catch-all solution. In many scenarios, a severe lack of trust in these technologies, and in government, has been observed. This lack of trust constitutes a barrier to digital registration initiatives. This observation is particularly concerning because digital IDs are only really effective when there is already a civil registry system in place to be digitized. In other words, digital IDs can verify identity, but cannot verify citizenship or eligibility for government services. While high-tech digitization initiatives hold great promise for improving governance, they often require expertise and infrastructure that not all governments can muster without referring to an external operating team.
Worryingly, digital IDs can be the root of new problems, often in regard to data security, privacy, and marginalization. A breach of citizenship data could have disastrous consequences for an unprepared government undergoing digitization. Operating an unfamiliar technology runs the risk of fraud and manipulation, especially if citizens lack digital skills and cybersecurity.
Additionally, digital IDs may be maliciously mobilized as a political tool for marginalizing certain individuals and groups, and preventing them from the benefits of citizenship. To this end, digital ID efforts threaten to marginalize remote communities, persons with disabilities or persecuted minorities that are purposefully disenfranchised. Put simply, without proper readiness and support, implementing digital IDs may serve to exacerbate, rather than close, the digital divide and compromise democracy.
Efforts to implement digital IDs are present in various countries around the world. And the programs employing this relatively new technology have had mixed success to date—many have failed to attain even modest levels of usage, while a few have achieved large-scale implementation. Below, we draw some lessons about best practices and areas for improvement from Sierra Leone, Estonia, and Kenya. One message is clear: the right digital ID technology, designed with the right principles and enforced with the right policies, can protect individuals from the risk of abuse and enable the safe inclusion of billions in the (digital) economy.
Speaking at the UN Digital Cooperation Roadmap launch in early June, President Julius Madaa Bio’s opening remarks captured the spirit of Sierra Leone’s new National Innovation and Digital Strategy that prioritizes digitization for all, everywhere. President Bio emphasized that sustainable and inclusive development is unthinkable without the simultaneous digitization of the economy, governance, and identity. In practice, while Sierra Leone still ranks as one of Africa’s least developed economies, it boasts Africa’s most exciting track record on digital transformation. In recent years, the digital economy has grown with an increase in digital financial services and e-payments, in addition to high-profile partnerships with Huawei for ICT infrastructural development. As for digital governance, the Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation (DTSI), headed by Dr. David Moinina Sengeh, takes inspiration from Estonia’s e-governance model.
Economy and governance aside, perhaps Sierra Leone’s most impressive leaps are on the front of digital identity and digital democracy. The country is a global leader in the confident application of disruptive technologies (like blockchain and cloud computing) to bolster all parts of the electoral process. In March 2018, former President Koroma was (peacefully) voted out in blockchain-backed elections. Over 70% of polling was anonymously stored in a blockchain ledger which provided the electoral commission instant access to election results. And in September last year, President Bio announced his government would develop a blockchain-backed national digital ID system, in partnership with the UN and fintech Kiva. Not only will these digital IDs enable the integration of institutional log-ins, but also record all credit events on a ledger to broaden access to banking services.
From the GoSL appointment app designed for improving efficiency among public sector workers to the financial data mapping initiative to build an integrated national revenue and expense platform, digitizing identities will pave the way for a large-scale digital transformation of governance and the economy, and in some instances (such as elections) is already doing so. Digital transformation aside, Sierra Leone’s commitment to digitization has led to tangible gains in inclusive development. African Development Bank data suggests a steady rise in GDP and a steady decline in inflation. And as for democratic gains, the Perceptions of Electoral Integrity Index displays a remarkable improvement in electoral procedures in the past five years, bolstered by blockchain. There is still progress to be made on this front: Freedom House records endemic corruption that threatens to destabilize hard-won political rights and civil liberties. It is clear, however, that real progress is on the horizon.
Estonia is a, if not the, global pioneer when it comes to e-identity and e-governance. The country was trialing Internet voting as early as 2007 and today, nearly half of Estonian citizens vote online. The country’s dedicated program for digital society, E-Estonia, facilitates interactions with the state using digital solutions across education, healthcare, finance, identity: and the list goes on, to cover 99% of state services provided online. The Estonian governance has been securitized by KSI blockchain since 2012. Since implementation, Estonia has generated more digital signatures (900 million) than the entire EU combined. Leaders in the public and private sector have been committed to building a “digital republic” for nearly two decades.
Estonia’s digital ID system is the cornerstone of their digital society. Physical ID cards are integrated with mobile ID, e-residency, and SmartID that have both enabled and catalyzed the digitization of almost all services, from voting to picking up a prescription. Data security breaches were addressed transparently and publicly, as emphasized by the head of the Information System Authority Taimar Peterkop. For these reasons, Estonia is ranked as one of the world’s healthiest democracies (Freedom House); and Portulans’ Network Readiness Index also demonstrates this expertise. Estonia’s governance is supported by high rankings in Internet security (ranked 9th globally) and cybersecurity (ranked 5th globally). As for technology, Estonia’s government is ranked 2nd globally for the use of ICTs and government efficiency.
In 2019, Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta announced the creation of the National Integrated Identity Management System (NIIMS), supported by the new biometric digital ID database, Huduma Namba, “the authentic, single source of truth… thus allowing all citizens to partake in the digital movement.” Huduma Namba is more than a population register: by assigning every citizen their own unique ID number that covers education, healthcare, housing, and more, it is a leap towards digital transformation of these sectors, too.
Yet implementing this program has met stiff resistance. Members of certain ethnic groups found it difficult to register as they did not possess the national ID cards required to apply for biometric ID. For this reason, millions of minority citizens face exclusion. Activists have voiced concerns about “digitizing discrimination.” Additionally, concerns about data protection laws propelled the project into an investigation by the High Court, which in January 2020 ruled that the further implementation of biometric IDs could only continue if supported by a stronger and more comprehensive legal framework. However, with over 40 million citizens’ biometric data already collected, much damage is already done. The Kenyan Human Rights Commission, Namati, and Nubian Rights Forum challenged Huduma Namba based on the program’s potential to marginalize and exclude, in addition to the limited public consultation and mandatory registration.
Despite these valid concerns, the Huduma Namba effort is symptomatic of Kenya’s wave of digitization. As indicated by the NRI, Kenya’s scores for Future Technology on indicators like technology availability (ranked 47th globally), government procurement of advanced technology products (20th), and company investment in emerging technology (32nd) outrank Kenya’s overall standing (93rd). In May, we wrote about Kenya’s ICT innovation drive. Properly implemented, digital IDs would facilitate remarkable growth and digital inclusion.
Digital ID can form the foundation of a host of applications in many aspects of an individual’s life, work, and social interactions. The potentially pervasive nature of digital ID makes it akin to dual-use technologies—like nuclear energy and GPS—that are designed to generate benefit but are also capable of being used for harmful or undesirable purposes. Thus, if improperly implemented, digital IDs will and, in some cases, already have, undermine the efforts to digitize governance. Yet as demonstrated by other cases, digital IDs are a harbinger of comprehensive governmental digitization that enables citizens to better access and exercise their fundamental rights and freedoms. In this effort, network readiness and digital skills are essential to reaping both the trust and the benefits of technology for building a stronger, more inclusive society.
 Elements of an adequate regulatory framework for a good Digital ID are demonstrated at Governing ID: A Framework for Evaluation of Digital Identity, available online. The World Bank also supports good regulation for trusted Digital ID systems with their Legal Assessment Tool, available online.
 Individuals around the world have significant privacy-related concerns that high-assurance digital ID can address. For more on this, see Digital Identification: A Key To Inclusive Growth, sponsored by the Omidyar Network.
 Koos van der Bruggen, “Possibilities, intentions and threats: Dual use in the life sciences reconsidered,” Science and Engineering Ethics, 2011, Volume 18, Issue 4, pp. 741–56.