Digital ID Systems

#WhyID: World Bank and dangerous digital ID systems do not mix

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The World Bank and other international organizations must immediately stop any and all activities that promote harmful models of digital identification systems (digital ID) anywhere in the world. 

Through an open letter,  Access Now, Privacy International, NYU researchers, and other civil society organizations are calling on the World Bank to cease supporting unchecked digital ID systems that enable surveillance, exclusion, and discrimination.

“The World Bank’s Identification for Development (ID4D) Initiative funds a development agenda based around expanding digital ID, when it should be establishing one around people and communities,” said Marianne Díaz Hernández, #WhyID Campaigner at Access Now. “By implementing digital ID systems that are unchecked, untested, and, most importantly, at odds with human rights, this high level institution is not only risking the privacy of millions, but setting a dangerous precedent for global decision-makers.”

Through its ID4D program, the World bank helps establish new, or upgrade existing, digital ID systems implemented by national governments. Often these systems use digitized biometric data, rely on a centralized model — risking data breaches — and consist of an ad-hoc bundling of public and private services to keep the systems running. Often individual rights and privacy are disregarded along the way.

“People and communities around the world are becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of digital ID systems that exclude, exploit, and surveil,” said Dr Tom Fisher, Senior Researcher at Privacy International. “Powerful organizations, like the World Bank, have to be open to the critical examination of these systems, and be open to an approach that emphasizes human rights.”

Poorly planned and implemented systems have severely affected human rights in India, where the big ID system, Aadhaar, operates as a tool for exclusion, disenfranchising almost two million people, and in the Dominican Republic, where the  digital ID system fueled the retroactive exclusion of people of Haitian descent from the civil registry.

In 2022, when governments around the world are closing civic space, censoring populations, and boosting their digital surveillance capabilities, powerful actors like the World Bank must take the following actions to uphold rights: 

  • Invite and fund independent, rights-based assessments of the World Bank’s role in supporting digital ID systems;
  • Assess existing evidence, and cease activities that heighten the risk of human rights violations;
  • Enforce greater transparency around World Bank activities regarding digital ID;
  • Create opportunities for sustained, high-level engagement with civil society and other experts; and 
  • Increase funding and resources for independent  studies, assessments, and evaluations. 

These recommendations apply equally to UN bodies, private foundations, the private sector, and donors such as the United Kingdom, Australia, and France.

Read the full letter.