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What is identity and why is it important?

by Annabelle Ranson, Thales

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What is identity?

In 1793, French mathematician and philosopher, Nicolas de Condorcet laid the foundations of “social mathematics” by studying the relationship between the individual and the collective to formalise the foundations of the democratic system. He chose the mathematical term “identity” to represent the algebraic concept of equality among citizens in terms of their legal rights and obligations.

However, identity has also come to express the differences between us. Simply speaking, identity is a combination of your physical and behavioural traits that define who you are. For example, your name is part of your identity, as is the form and colour of your eyes and your fingerprint. This set of characteristics allows you to be definitively and uniquely recognisable.

Identity plays an important role in empowering individuals to exercise their rights and responsibilities fairly and equitably in a modern society. It is imperative for social, economic and digital inclusion as it provides access to basic human rights such as healthcare, pensions, social benefits, the ability to exercise our right to vote, and beyond. But to be able to access those rights, one needs to be able to prove that they are who they claim to be.

Usually official documents such as passports and identity cards are used as a proof of your name, and your photo on these documents is the most natural link to who you are.

Official identity as a proxy for inclusion

If a country’s citizens don’t have access to an official identity, they are much more likely to miss out on a variety of essential services, due to the fact that identity touches so many aspects of our lives. For citizens, identity provides them with access to state programs that support their wellbeing. As an example, Jamaica recently approved the use of biometric authentication systems to verify those citizens accessing social welfare benefits.

Yet an official identity system is also beneficial for governments. With more citizens registered they have a much better chance of accurately understanding their population’s demographics, which in turn plays an essential role in impactful policy making.

It is for these reasons that access to a legal identity has been recognised by the United Nations General Assembly as being a fundamental sustainable development goal – ensuring a legal identity from birth to all by 2030.

Nonetheless, getting a population registered is not an easy task and there are many barriers to reaching everyone – both due to physical geographical landscapes and a lack of infrastructure to support the collection of information. On the government side, the space tends to be a fragmented one, with multiple overlapping and incompatible systems being deployed at the same time. In general, there is a lack of coordination between civil registration and identity, and with other state systems that have their own registration and credential systems. Moreover, a proportion of the population is excluded because of excessive charges, indirect costs, and convoluted processes, or simply because they don’t have physical access to the service.

So how can we ensure the responsible adoption of official identity and the necessary protections around it which ensure that it is a tool for public good?

The role of foundational ID systems

Unique identity or foundational ID systems are general-purpose identity platforms that are designed to support all forms of identity. There are no multiple or redundant registrations, meaning that one registration is created for use with all state systems. Furthermore, foundational ID systems offer improved service delivery and economies of scale, and as identity becomes a readily available commodity, a new ecosystem of different applications naturally emerges. One such ID system is India’s Aadhaar, thanks to which nearly 80 percent of India’s citizens have access to critical government services.

Here’s how an individual’s identity is established:

  • The user’s unique biographical (name, date and place of birth, etc.) and biometric data (fingerprint) is captured

  • It is then validated to establish the uniqueness of the request for an accurate digital identity

  • This unique identity is then verified against existing data in internal or external systems

  • The biometric and biographical data is authenticated against physical documents

  • And finally, a unique identity is created in the foundational system, and a private unique identity number (UIN) is assigned to the person.

Achieving identity inclusion has become ever more urgent in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic as public health and economic challenges are pressuring governments to deploy essential measures such as social safety nets, health, and labour programs that ensure the health & wellbeing of the population and help restart their economies. One important link for enabling these is that all measures require inclusive identification of the population.

My colleague Jaume Dubois, who is an identity system specialist at Thales, will join other experts in the field for the ID4Africa livecast discussion to tackle the issue of identity and inclusion and share examples of policies, approaches and technologies that have proven successful. The discussion will take place on 16 September 2020 at 2:30pm CET on International Identity Day.

We invite you to learn more about the underpinning technology and processes for secure delivery of ID services.

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