It's Time For A Unique Digital ID For Every Person In The World

Blockchain may be the technical solution, as companies, international institutions and NGOs long for a global system that authenticate anyone’s identity, no matter where they are.

A demonstration of the use of smartphones to verify passports in Munich in May 2018
A demonstration of the use of smartphones to verify passports in Munich in May 2018
Jacques Henno

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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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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