A man at an Aadhaar registration center in New Delhi, India. Photo by: REUTERS / Saumya Khandelwal

While climate change seems like a far-off problem for some, Bangladesh faces an immediate environmental crisis. Changes such as shifting rain patterns and saltwater intrusion have put the country in a race against the clock: Around 700,000 of its residents have been seasonally displaced in each of the last 10 years due to natural disasters, and scientists estimate that rising sea levels will put some 17% of the country’s land underwater by 2050.

The crisis has forced many Bangladeshis into seasonal migration, leaving their ruined homes and disappearing occupations behind for weeks or months on end as they search for work in large cities. Once migrants reach these urban centers, they face another problem: proving their identities.

In Bangladesh, as in other parts of the globe, government services and certain work opportunities require identity verification. While some people have proofs of identity in the form of birth registration or a national ID, many do not have physical identification documents or have lost them during the disasters that forced them to migrate.

What’s more, the government’s aggressive transition to building a digital Bangladesh by 2021 by digitizing access to jobs, payments, and public services is set to render any paper forms of ID obsolete, and make digital forms of ID necessary.  

With its potential for portability, digital ID presents one possible solution for helping to cope with the challenges of mass internal migration and the wider need to provide proof of ID. But for Bangladesh, two important questions remain: How can governments and businesses ensure that the digital ID systems implemented to meet these urgent needs are “good,” and what does a “good” digital ID model look like?

Bangladesh is not the only nation examining these questions. Around the world, a consensus is emerging that digital ID is essential to the economic empowerment, and digital and financial inclusion, of billions of people. Recent years have seen major strides toward the expansion of digital ID as a result. Global internet connectivity has never been better, with more than half of the world’s population online for the first time and a million users joining every day.

Governments in countries as diverse as Ecuador, France, and Zambia have initiated digital ID programs — and the world’s largest national e-ID scheme, India’s Aadhaar, has enrolled more than 1.2 billion users as of 2018. For many people, digital ID now provides access to banking, voting, health care, and more.  

Still, digital ID can come with challenges. Data, especially when stored in large, centralized databases, is vulnerable. Without proper protections in place, officials who are authorized to collect, manage, and access users’ identification details can easily misuse or mislay the information, sharing data without users’ consent. In the worst case, personal information could be used to target groups for persecution.

Third-party hackers also pose a perennial threat. As a 2014 report from the U.N. World Summit on the Information Society found, authentication mechanisms for verifying identities and granting access to online resources were proven to be weak, presenting challenges in combating fraud and forgery. Security issues with Aadhaar, for one, have served as a more recent reminder that data breaches could compromise users’ finances, healthcare, and, above all, their ability to assert their identities.

The realities of existing digital ID systems, and the problems around privacy and access that have already occurred, have made one thing clear: Digital ID is becoming an increasingly crucial piece of infrastructure, but we have to chart a careful course to ensure it is implemented in a way that avoids the perils experienced with other cutting-edge technologies.  

So, as we work urgently for digital ID, the private, public, and social sectors must take care to create systems that are good. We need digital ID that upholds human rights, and that can be trusted and recognized across institutional and national borders. We need systems that are personal, private, persistent, and portable. This means individualized structures that are owned and controlled by users, functional throughout life, and accessible everywhere in the world — as valid in sub-Saharan Africa as in New York City. Done right, we can also create ID systems that improve inclusion and give new access to services to the hardest to reach communities.  

Building rigorous systems requires us to confront, head-on, the practical and ethical challenges that digital ID presents, with two main points of action: first, supporting the development and implementation of new, acceptably robust technologies; and second, influencing policy and coordination among multiple digital ID providers in public and private sectors.  

The technology that underpins digital ID systems can and must be designed for optimal security. Emerging technologies — for example, cryptographically secure, decentralized systems such as Blockchain — could provide privacy protection for users while allowing for portability. To ensure digital ID functions properly in extreme conditions, we must also develop technical solutions that can operate offline and in decentralized settings.

And technology alone is not enough. Consensus on technical design principles and interoperability is needed for digital IDs to be trusted and recognized. Beyond technical standards, other laws, rules, and policies must be enacted to govern how identification data is used and accessed. For example, we need legislative frameworks that anticipate the breakdown of governmental control in disaster-affected areas.

Ultimately, introducing digital ID programs in a timely and ethical manner depends on sustained, transparent collaboration and advocacy to achieve its broader societal adoption. As new solutions are devised, we must define what constitutes the “right” and “wrong” applications of digital ID, and continually re-examine those definitions as progress is made.

To get digital ID right, we must work together to resolve the tension between the urgency of the desire for digital ID, and the need for solutions that protect users and their data — because Bangladesh cannot risk getting it wrong.  

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Dakota Gruener

    Dakota Gruener is executive director of the ID2020 Alliance, a nonprofit organization focused on improving lives through digital identity. At ID2020, Dakota leads overall strategy, builds critical partnerships with public and private sector stakeholders, and continually focuses the organization on an ethics-first approach. She launched the ID2020 Alliance following her work at Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, where she served as an aide-de-camp to the CEO.
  • Anir Chowdhury

    Anir Chowdhury is the policy advisor of Access to Information in Bangladesh, a UNDP and USAID-supported program run by the Prime Minister’s Office of Bangladesh. In this capacity, he leads the formation of a whole-of-society innovation ecosystem in Bangladesh through massive technology deployment, extensive capacity development, integrated policy formulation, whole-of-government institutional reform and an innovation fund. He has also co-founded several software and service companies in the U.S. and Bangladesh focused on enterprise management and IT strategy for Fortune 500 corporations.
  • Gary Fowlie

    Gary Fowlie is a technology economist and member of the ID2020 Alliance’s Ecosystem and Advocacy Advisory Committee. Gary was formerly the representative of the International Telecommunication Union to the United Nations where he led an inter-agency effort to ensure information and communication technologies were recognized in the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Agenda. Previously, he served as chief of media liaison for the United Nations in New York and was responsible for communications and advocacy for the World Summit on the Information Society.