Building Digital Identities

A personal legal identity is crucial for accessing benefits and services, and is increasingly linked to human rights and development agendas.

In fact legal identity for all has been established as one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. In developing countries, traditional identifiers such as date of birth or home address are not always available. For instance, births are not all registered, or the location of home may be unofficial or transient. The increasing use of digital technology means that individuals are leaving a trail of records about their daily lives and interactions. These ‘behavioural identifiers’ are building evidence of identity, which potentially could be collated to provide a legal identity for all individuals.

On the 8 February 2017, Exeter University and Coalition with funding from the ESRC convened a multidisciplinary one-day workshop entitled Building Digital Identities. The workshop aimed to bring together and mobilise leading researchers across the social sciences, alongside technical and commercial specialists to explore the challenges and the opportunities for the digital collection of behavioural attributes for new digital identity systems.

Drawing on discussions and key themes arising from the workshop, alongside a rapid review of the literature, I worked with Dr Ana Beduschi, Dr Jonathan Dr Jonathan Cinnamon and Dr Chunbo Luo and Joss Lanford from Coelition to help facilitate the workshop, capture discussions and create a report detailing the key priorities for research and action this emerging area.

Key findings

  • The 1.5 billion people worldwide without a legal identity cannot be viewed as a homogeneous group. It is crucial to distinguish between different groups (for example, refugees, migrants, rural communities) and tailor the design of identity systems with these groups in mind, ensuring users are involved in the governance of these systems.
  • We need a clearer understanding of how key legal frameworks at international and regional levels are likely to evolve in relation to new technologies, and how much they might influence domestic regulation.
  • There is a clear role for behavioural identifiers to sit alongside existing identity systems and provide new lines of data that can be used for verification.
    Behavioural identifiers emphasise a person-centred approach in the development of digital identity systems, based on societal norms and expectations.
  • Corporate organisations continue to play an important role in both driving and restraining innovation in this sector. There’s a need to invest in effective partnerships and the development of standards across different systems. We need a better understanding of the role of effective regulation and how to harness innovation for identity systems.
  • The technologies that support digital identity systems are evolving rapidly. Both private and public actors require intelligence to anticipate how digital infrastructure might evolve in the next 5-10 years. Failure to do so may lead to ineffective identity systems, which may have significant social and economic costs.

You can download the full report here.


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