PARIS — How can I prove this is me, in real life or online? Identification has become so important in our connected world that the answer to this question is worth several billion dollars. Transactions, such as payments or administrative formalities, are dematerialized and need verifying through platforms, sometimes half a world away. And KYC ("Know Your Customer") obligations that are imposed on websites are increasing. This client identity's verification is enforced in relation to the fight against fake news, tax evasion, terrorism funding …

This is why some states, international organizations or companies are suggesting a unique digital identity that would allow everyone to be identified, everywhere. It could be electronic — a chip or contact-less card — or purely digital, a series of numbers. Identity would be authenticated through biometric or financial data, like a bank account, or an Internet profile (Facebook or Google account). It would grant access to the owner's civil register, healthcare information, bank details, and so on.

International organizations are further ahead when it comes to experimenting.

"It is an issue that is here to stay," says Cédric Lauradoux, a research fellow at Privatics, a privacy policy team at the French National Institute for computer science and applied mathematics (Inria) of Grenoble-Rhône-Alpes. "Except for some countries like Estonia or India, no project ever came to anything because there are disincentives that keep people from using these technologies." In particular, they give rise to many fears such as mass surveillance, leaks, reselling or crossing personal data, cyberattacks.

One billion people are undocumented

In spite of this mistrust, research projects are increasing. They arise from the private sector, international organizations, NGOs or consortia dedicated to this issue (Decentralized Identity Foundation, Fast Identity Online Alliance). On the companies' side, it was U.S. payment network Mastercard to make the most significant announcement. In late March, they said they would launch a "consumer-based digital identity model." "We aim to meet two objectives: making a universal, unique digital identity that could be used for online shopping as well as administrative formalities available to consumers; enabling users to have control over the data they share through this digital identity with whomever they wish," said Rigo Van den Broeck from Mastercard Europe's Intelligence & Cyber department. The project has not gone beyond the pilot stage, focused on very technical aspects such as tax payments.

International organizations are further ahead when it comes to experimenting. By 2030, the UN is aiming to provide a legal identity to all the people who are without papers — an estimated one billion. This is not a selfless act: Many UN agencies deal with displaced and undocumented populations, which can cause mistakes or fraud when distributing assistance. UN agencies deliver more than 12 billion rations of food to nearly 80 million people every year. "We devised contactless cards that hold the recipient's identity, picture and fingerprints. Some 15 million people are using it, says Lionel Baraben, CEO at Famoco, a Parisian company specializing in secure professional terminals. "The cost of monitoring procedures decreased by 74% compared to paper identity," he said.

A Yemeni old man sits by his food ration he received as a humanitarian aid in Yemen, in May 2018 — Photo: Mohammed Mohammed/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) also seeks to create a permanent encrypted way to identify, that can be shared to the 20 million people they are responsible for. With ID2020 – a public-private partnership based in New-York that gathers Accenture, Microsoft, the Rockefeller Foundation and NGOs, among others — they study the benefits of blockchain. "The thought was that blockchain can be used as a sort of forgery-proof register that would allow refugees to grant access to their specific personal data to a specific organization," explains Giuseppe Giordano, a manager at Accenture Labs at Sophia Antipolis technology park in France.

This research could be applied to everyone one day. "The needs for authenticating are the same in developing and developed countries. Depending on life circumstances, people move, cross borders," ID2020 CEO Dakota Gruener sums up.

All of these experiments brought about the idea of directly providing every undocumented individual in the world with a digital identity. This initiative is especially backed by the World Bank. "This will cost $9 billion," points out Vyjayanti Desai, who leads the ID4D (Identification for Development) programme at the World Bank in Washington, DC. "Some 30 countries have launched research to this end. We provide them with technical or financial assistance," Desai said.

This research could be applied to everyone one day.

The World Bank planned to dedicate $1 billion on the whole on this program. On April 12, it organized a conference about this project, dedicating a prize to the best idea to make digital identity more widely available while securing personal and private data. The top prize went to Simprint, a start-up from the University of Cambridge that devised an authenticating technology for humanitarian organizations using fingerprints. Many people about to register into a biometric database can't read or write. Audio is broadcast to them to explain how their data is going to be used so they can give their consent to the procedure. This is just one example of the technical and legal difficulties that devising digital identity in refugees camps raises. Moving to a global scale may take some more time.

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