The World Bank estimates there are currently around 1.5 billion people who have no identity papers to prove they are who they say they are, barring them from basic services and rights. Mobile technology might be the answer to this desperate problem.
The majority of those without official proofs of identity live in Asia and Africa, and a disproportionate number are women and children. They have no government-issued documentation as proof of their legal identity, which means they cannot access education services, open bank accounts, track children's vaccination records or access basic services. With no traceable identity, they are more at risk of abduction, slavery and human trafficking.
This situation could be resolved by leveraging ubiquitous mobile technology and advances in big data management and biometrics.
Africa leads the way to digital ID
The World Bank’s Identification for Development (ID4D) initiative encourages governments to adopt digital identification systems as part of a wider goal of ending extreme poverty and promoting shared prosperity. Earlier this year, African leaders agreed to work together with the World Bank to speed up the provision of unique identification to millions of Africans, in a bid to grow economies and drive greater regional integration.
"Identification provides a foundation for other rights and gives a voice to the voiceless," said Makhtar Diop, Vice President for Africa, World Bank. “It is indispensable for ensuring access to education, financial services, and health and social benefits."
Universal legal identity through secure authentication mechanisms has the potential to transform society through improved distribution of resources, according to the World Bank. Examples it cites include cash transfers to pensioners in South Africa and cashless health insurance for households in Gabon on the West African coast.
The mobile breakthrough in digital ID
Mobile technology is set to be the breakthrough means of solving the identity crisis. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, more than half the population in some countries have no official ID, but more than two-thirds have mobile phone subscriptions. Digital IDs have become a game-changer in distributing official ID, opening up an exciting channel for digital service delivery.
Digital IDs can be created biometrically through a person's fingerprints, facial or optical characteristics. These can be verified in real-time on a smartphone or any other connected device. In Ghana, for example, the Ghana Card uniquely identifies individuals based on biometric features and can be used for verification and authentication of identity to open a bank account or access health services.
The world's largest digital ID scheme is in India. Over 80 per cent of the population has signed-up to biometrics-based Aadhaar. Now the Indian government has launched the Unified Payment Interface, which it hopes will bring banking to the poor and disadvantaged by making transferring and receiving money as easy as using text messaging. The scheme will hook into India's accelerating smartphone market, which is forecast to hit 29 per cent this year and continues to show double-digit growth over the next two years, according to Gartner.
The government is now looking at the idea of Aadhaar-enabled smartphones that could eventually create a cashless society. The smartphones would be encrypted with a Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) key and provide a connection to an Aadhaar server to instantly authenticate the user biometrically.
India is thinking ahead of the curve. By 2030, biometric smartphones and other smart devices will make traditional ID such as national IDs, driver’s licenses and passports obsolete, according to a report by Acuity Market Intelligence.
"The platform driving this transformation is being rolled out today. More than 220 biometrically enabled smartphone models are currently on the market. By 2018, all smartphones will include biometrics....The global deployment of this platform is the tipping point for full-scale adoption of digital identity,” explained Maxine Most, Acuity Market Intelligence Principal.
Exploiting the power of digital ID
Digital ID has the potential to change our world for the better, opening up services for the poor and disenfranchised, while increasing transparency and accountability. But, it doesn't come without its challenges. "Success will depend on governments instilling a climate of trust in such systems, and these in turn require strong political commitment and leadership," explained the World Bank.
Digital ID offers the unprecedented opportunity to help eradicate poverty and suffering, but it requires active participation from both the public and private sectors to make it work.