Tackling Identity


Every year, millions of children worldwide see their right to a legal identity denied. In 2007, more than 51 million children were not registered at birth, and nearly half of these young people were from developing countries. To add to it, 1.1 billion people do not have a legal/formal identification and are therefore financially excluded.

Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law. Without an identity, you cannot participate in government, benefit from public services or access financial services. Recognising this, the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16.9 aims at providing a legal identity for all, including birth registration by 2030.

What is identity?

Identity is a set of attributes that uniquely identify an individual or entity. It assigns rights and responsibilities, behaviours, and capabilities. Your identity may or may not be linked to your national status but providing an identity is often your government’s responsibility. In some instances, however, governments are either not willing, not able to or not trusted to provide legal identification.

Characteristics of Identity

  • Unique meaning it only identifies you among a group of people
  • Lives with you for the rest of your life, unchanging even through the phases of your life
  • Immutable and cannot be altered or deleted
  • Is issued by a trusted authority allowing authentication and verification
  • Can be used anywhere to identify you and give you access to services
  • Gives you as the owner access and control of your data and its usage

Importance of Identity

Identity captures aspects that uniquely identify you and verify your existence. A legal identity gives you rights and responsibilities, behaviours, and capabilities. To be undocumented means to be denied an opportunity to access civil and social rights, which could lead to exploitation.

Identity allows you,

  • Access to social protection systems and social benefits like social allowances and healthcare
  • Access to education; even our national exams require birth certificates, and you need a national ID to register for tertiary education
  • To travel across international borders using your passport or a temporary permit
  • To seek employment
  • To communicate: Without a recognised ID, you cannot register a mobile number
  • To access financial services, without a national ID and KRA PIN, you can’t open an account or make claims on an insurance policy
  • To participate in governance like voting, resource planning

Most of the homeless children you see on Nairobi’s streets do not have a legally recognised identity. The street children are often runaways from upcountry, looking for a better life having escaped hardship or mistreatment. To reintegrate or participate in society as we know it, requires them first to have a form of identification. They can’t go to school, get a job, vote, get government assistance, or open an account without an identity.

Refugees are also vulnerable, fleeing conflict, natural disasters, political conditions, exploitative or debasing cultural practices, searching for a better life. These displacements may cause the loss of legal documents, or it may be that it is not safe to have the legal documents as they cross borders. As such, they traverse borders without documentation and without a means to prove who they are. This makes them prone to exploitation or makes it challenging to integrate once they reach their destination country.

Forms of ID

Identification can fall into two categories: physical identification and digital identification. You use physical identification, usually in the form of a physical token, to identify the holder. Physical ID is most commonly, a photo ID containing a name, photo, birth date, signature, and address. This form of ID is beneficial for face-to-face identification. Examples of photo ID are national ID, driver’s licence, passports, staff IDs or library cards. The issuing authority will maintain centralised databases containing additional information about the cardholder.

Some photo IDs have chips that allow them to access information electronically, sign documents or have additional security features like biometrics. ID-kaart from Estonia is a photo ID with a chip that identifies Estonian nationals and stores a key pair on the chip allowing the holder to sign documents using cryptographic technology digitally. This ID card can also be used as a travel document in the EU and enable access to government services like transport, voting, etc.

Digital identification does not require a physical token to enable identification. This is especially essential for online identification. When signing a contract online, how do you know that you are dealing with the right person? Often people will have usernames and passwords to access online resources, but how do you link the username to a real person? Digital ID proves identity electronically and gives the right to access online information or services. Digital ID comes in many forms, usernames and passwords, PINs, IP addresses, etc. An example of a national digital ID is the Indian digital ID, Aadhar. While it has a physical ID card, the primary basis of identification is biometrics and the 12-digit Aadhar number.

Challenges in Implementing Identity

  • Geographic barriers: It is more difficult and costly to get an ID in rural areas than it is in urban areas due to the sparse population and depth of reach of social amenities.
  • Economic barriers: Cost of acquiring an ID may outweigh the perceived benefits. In the case of a rural family where each member is known to the local community and can get credit and services based on this, the idea of travelling miles, multiple times, to get an ID and pay for photographs may not make financial sense.
  • Cultural barriers: Some laws, cultures and religion do not consider women as individuals. They fall under their fathers until they are married and then under their husbands. These traditions limit women’s ability to participate socially and economically.
  • Ethnic barriers: For some countries, certain groups are not considered nationals or are ostracised, limiting their ability to obtain legal identification.
  • Varied identification documents: As a Kenyan, I have several ID documents; birth certificate confirming my birth, school index number for national exams (a different one for primary school and a different one for high school), driving license, voter’s card, PIN and passport. Not all of these are universally accepted to identify me. It depends on the context. For instance, birth certificates, index numbers, voter’s card and driving license are of no use to the bank.
  • Cost of providing an ID: The very nature of identity makes it a costly project to undertake. A unique identity may require biometrics. A trusted system will need to ensure unique and immutable entries. It needs to be available across the country as people are unlikely to commute long distances to get an ID.
  • Dependence on government: Some governments are not able, willing, or trusted to undertake legal identification projects. Identification projects are costly and are considered without returns and may not feature in the national agenda.

Use of Technology to Solve Identity Problems

We can use technology to solve the identification problem. We already know that digital ID is more straightforward to administer than physical ID and can quickly scale to reach the underserved;

  • you don’t have to handle the logistics of ID application and verification, production of a physical ID document and dispatching it to the owner,
  • storing physical documents supporting the ID document and regular physical updates can be limited.

For instance, we can create immutable records using blockchain, protect the security of data we hold using encryption, and enhance authentication using biometrics.

With the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16.9, numerous companies and international NGOs are looking to solve the identity problem. ID 2020, for instance, is a global alliance that is looking towards creating a universal digital identity that gives ownership and responsibility of ID to the holder. Deloitte has been working on Smart-ID as a platform for people and objects to obtain, verify and share identity credentials. Countries too are taking on the challenge, partnering with digital companies to offer digital IDs, e.g., China.

Why is the adoption of Digital IDs so slow?

Kenya is on the path to introduce a digital ID through the Huduma Number. The idea is to have one ID that lives with you, birth to death and aggregates all your data through this unique identifier. You wouldn’t need the myriad of identity documents we collect during our lifetimes that are only useful in specific contexts.

This is an expensive endeavour. The government spent and continues to spend billions of shillings to implement this initiative on both labour and technology. Not all governments or private organisations can do this. So cost is a limiting factor.

The initiative also met with a lot of resistance. The goal was not clear, and there were a lot of controversial data points. For instance, they wanted to capture all citizens’ DNA, a pandora’s box fueled by a plethora of conspiracy theories. Other concerns were around the security of data and trust. The citizenry raised worries about data storage and security, frequency of updates and accuracy of records, data protection and control, ownership of data, data usage and the right to be forgotten. With digital IDs come challenges like identity theft, unauthorised access to sensitive information, unauthorised surveillance and vulnerability through profiling.

These are reasonable concerns. We have seen how, through unfettered access to our online information, Big Tech companies have used our data for good (personalised product design, Netflix’s recommended shows) and bad (annoying marketing campaigns and influencing elections). However, you can choose to delete your online account if you feel Big Tech companies violate your privacy or go too far, but how do you opt-out of a national identification system? China’s attempt at a social credit score didn’t do the initiative any favours either. While most of us would benefit from having all our data aggregated n one place, the idea that the government could use the data to profile you is scary.

Until we address these issues, there will likely continue to be pushback on adopting digital IDs, and more people will continue to be excluded.