A lack of dialogue on the pros and cons of digital identity is limiting opportunities for invaluable empirical research on the most pressing issues, confronting so-called beneficiaries, including varied forms of disenfranchisement. They were discussed in May 2021 at a workshop with The Alan Turing Institute: Researching Digital Identity in Times of Crisis, where scholars, policy experts, civil society representatives and practitioners discussed wide-ranging case studies and the implications of the COVID-19 crisis on both digital identity development and research in this space.

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Digital identity workshop calls for new research agenda

Debates on digital identity, particularly in the context of humanitarian aid, often devolve into binarized positions. On one side, the inclusionary and empowering benefits of digital identity are championed, while risks, especially to aid recipients, are downplayed.

In contrast, critical voices, including many digital rights activists and privacy advocates, critique digital identity as a shocking manifestation of ‘surveillance humanitarianism,’ yet can overlook how aid subjects may associate digital identity with formal recognition and essential rights.

A summary of the diverse discussion at the Researching Digital Identity in Times of Crisis event reflects three key takeaways for framing future research and addressing concerns that lead to polarisation:

  1. The need for comparative work that examines how digital identity schemes are taking shape in ways that may be similar – but also profoundly different – across global divides of socio-economic privilege and marginalisation. This includes flows and disparities in funding, infrastructure, political agendas and logics.
     
  2. Digital identity systems are increasingly evolving to be interoperable with the systems they support often leading to new agreements around how data is managed, which can enable data sharing between humanitarian organisations, government agencies, private partners, and other third parties. Yet we often have little understanding of the details of such agreements or the politics shaping these arrangements.
     
  3. There are calls for a better grasp of the influences driving supply-side agreements. Why and how are technology providers targeting their offerings at aid actors? In what ways has the aid sector become a new market for digital identity tech? This is an area with promise to bring polarised perspectives together with the opportunity for better research praxis to go hand-in-hand with greater transparency in the industry.

Researchers and industry stakeholders can take heed of the disparities between digital identity systems in different international settings to tackle pressing methodological, technical, and conceptual questions.

There is real value in pursuing opportunities that can merge solutions-oriented technical expertise with theoretical and methodological insights from the realms of surveillance studies; critical data studies; the study of law, regulation and technology and disciplines like anthropology.

Access and read the full workshop report from the Turing’s trustworthy digital infrastructure for identity systems project pages.