How big a task is giving everyone on Earth a digital identity?

13 Dec 2017

A Sudanese father and refugee provides biometrics during registration in Goz Amir camp, Chad. Image: UNHCR/SA Jeffries

Millions of people around the world are ‘invisible’ with no form of identity, but blockchain and other technologies could help solve this.

There are more than 1bn people across the globe who have no form of identity, and this is a massive problem.

Imagine trying to flee a war-torn land and making it to another country, only to be told that there was no record of you existing, so giving you asylum will be difficult, if not impossible. Or perhaps your child needs to receive a life-saving vaccine, but the charities that hold records on children in the country don’t have any record of their birth.

This latter case was what drove Dakota Gruener to take her work with NGOs and join ID2020, an alliance of governments, NGOs and the private sector – particularly the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – to use technology to give 1.1bn people on the planet a digital identity.

Now serving as its executive director, Gruener continues to work also with Gavi, an organisation founded by Bill Gates and others in 2000, to bring underused vaccines to some of the most vulnerable people on Earth.

A lightbulb moment

While working as the aide de camp to Gavi’s CEO, Gruener travelled to Cameroon in 2014 for the launch of the national rotavirus vaccination programme.

Despite going in there with the knowledge that much of the country’s rural areas were significantly deprived of vaccines, Gruener was shocked to hear from a local running the programme that they were achieving great success. So much, in fact, that the local manager’s data showed a 140pc vaccination, which set off alarm bells.

“In Cameroon, the last census was held in the 1980s and because children weren’t routinely registered at birth, the denominator of this [new] equation trended out 30-year-old data that was pretty much meaningless,” she said in conversation with

“It was such a lightbulb moment that despite Gavi being a major organisation – considered one of the best and spends $2bn a year on vaccines on behalf of 60pc of children in the world – they can’t possibly deliver on their mandate if they don’t know who they’re trying to reach.”


Person receiving vaccine. Image: Ananchai Phuengchap/Shutterstock

Is blockchain the answer?

So, how does ID2020 plan to use technology to give these people digital identities? One of the solutions may lie in blockchain, the distributed ledger technology taking the financial world – along with nearly every major industry – by storm.

As a participant of the recent Accenture Blockchain for Good Hackathon, ID2020 has an interest in the technology that would provide a traceable digital identity, which, in theory, cannot be edited by third parties.

But, as Gruener points out, Gavi considers itself “technologically agnostic”, meaning it is wary of the pace of change, so it will be unlikely that it goes with just one facet of it.

“We’ve gone with [blockchain] because there’s clearly appetite for it but, to some extent, I think there will be life cycles to lots of different [technologies] and this truly does present elements that we believe are really important,” she said.

“There’s a particular blockchain that seems logical now but we have no reason to believe that it will be the only one relevant in the years to come. The same goes for biometric technology or any other supportive technology.”

She continued: “Our perspective is that, at the end of the day, this isn’t about an election of a single facet of technology, but creating the institutions and government infrastructure to create a collective community as technology continues to evolve.”

Role of social media

One possibility suggested by digital identity advocates aims to use a form of digital identity that many of us might use on a daily basis, but never really think about: Facebook.

With more than 2bn people on the planet with a Facebook account and more than 1bn without a formal type of digital identity, it is safe to say that many of the two camps cross over with each other.

To give just one amazing statistic, in the African nation of Malawi, just 2pc of its people have birth certificates, yet, incredibly, 4pc have a Facebook account.

So, would it not make sense to use an established platform to give these people identities?

The problem is that the very notion that a private company could hold personal identity records on more than 1bn people raises serious privacy concerns and the possibility of the rise of corporate states.

For Gruener, there could one day be some version of digital identity through social media, but not as we know it now.

“There’s an opportunity to find how identity can be integrated and [used] to reach people. We don’t want to say that Facebook owns digital identity for everybody as that seems like a really, really bad idea but I think [we can’t ignore] they’re already playing a role here.”

Early technologies

ID2020 has teamed up with private companies such as Accenture. The global consulting firm is looking at rolling out an interoperable, user-owned and controlled digital identity to its hundreds of thousands of staff with the idea of it being a standard background check to be distributed to potential clients.

This could be the framework for its wider Unique Identity Service Platform, a biometrics system that can manage data on fingerprints and irises, for example. It was developed with Microsoft and could one day make it to the wider world.

“There’s a really cool opportunity to say there’s a new model to digital identity, but equally relevant for those who are most vulnerable and those in the developed world,” Gruener said.

Privacy concerns

However, there is a worldwide concern of data ownership and access to services, particularly in Ireland where the recent roll-out of a public services card has been openly challenged as being a vast data-gathering project on citizens without any discussion or debate on consent.

Agreeing that these are valid concerns, Gruener said that in ID2020’s case, the need of a refugee to have some form of proof of their existence is a greater priority.

This is why technologies such as blockchain are being looked at, she said. “For [ID2020], being able to have something portable, and where the user has the ultimate control over how data is shared, can help mitigate some of those concerns.”

Despite its name suggesting a framework for something in the immediate future, ID2020 is working towards achieving target 16.9 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network to provide legal identity for everyone – including free birth registrations – by 2030.

By the end of the decade, its goal is to work on the technologies for digital identity and with governments in particular, some of which have already expressed an interest.

Through Gavi, the organisation is working with Malawi to help give children an identity through vaccination distribution, leading to an eventual system where everyone over the age of 16 in that country would have a national ID card.

“What we’ve set for 2020 is a proof of concept at a real scale, rather than just [a few dozen people],” Gruener said.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic