mitos big ID human rights

Big ID, bad idea: busting ID myths that are endangering human rights

Big ID programs — frequently involving biometric data collection — are being rolled out across the globe. Similar to Big Tech, Big ID refers to the market of actors selling and profiting from digital identification systems and infrastructure. They regularly aim to replace or complement government identification systems with digital ones, often endangering the human rights of those the people they’re supposed to benefit. Access Now’s new report, Busting the dangerous myths of Big ID programs: cautionary lessons from India, turns a human rights lens on these new systems, unpacking real-life case studies from India to distinguish fact from fiction. Read the full report, and the report snapshot.

India’s Big ID program, Aadhaar, was a bad idea that had a disastrous impact on peoples’ human rights. We must not let this be replicated around the globe,” Ria Singh Sawhney, Asia Pacific Policy Fellow at Access Now. “If we don’t seriously reevaluate Big IDs, and debunk the myths used to sell them, we are entering a dystopian future where biometric surveillance is normalized, the indignity of arbitrary exclusions are justified, and peoples’ data is no longer considered their own.”

These large, public sector-promoted programs often issue citizens and residents with a unique and ubiquitous digital identifier, store biometric data in centralized databases, authenticate identities for public services, and act as a key to integrate and link government databases. They hand over to authorities unprecedented insight into the private lives of residents. 

“Before governments buy and disseminate the narrative of super successful Big ID programs, they must first ask themselves, #WhyID?” said Verónica Arroyo, Latin America Policy Associate at Access Now. “The evidence is stacking up that these catch-all Big ID systems are a bad idea. They create structures for surveilling, discriminating, and dehumanizing every individual in their databases — this is a world we must fight against creating.”

The new report highlights:

  • Big ID is not needed to give people a legal identity: Who is identified is a political decision, how this is done digitally is a technical consideration. Digital ID often creates a barrier to someone being identified, potentially violating their legal right to identification. 
  • Big ID is not needed to establish the uniqueness of individuals: There is no reason people must be uniquely visible to governments at all times. People have a right to anonymity, and to choose how, and when, they want to enable identification by the state
  • Big ID creates a surveillance state:  Big ID creates space for surveillance to flourish, as demonstrated by India’s Aadhaar system, which demands the use of identification numbers to link and consolidate various databases. 

India’s experience with Aadhaar underlines the dangers of these programs, and neighboring Afghanistan is showcasing how truly perilous a centralized biometric database can be. Big ID myths must be debunked before these programs spread further.

Read the full report.