Identification in the digital age

In some countries, proving who you are is just a fingerprint away. For others, a secure digital identity is yet to be implemented. The world is on a digital transformation journey. Discover how digital ID is becoming a tool for twenty-first-century development.

What is a digital identity?

The word ‘identity’ has many interpretations. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the essential meaning is who someone is: a person’s name. The qualities, beliefs, etc. make a particular person or group different. Communities require methods and mechanisms to establish the identity of their members. A range of attributes can define a person. Some are visible; others are behavioural or related to status: the number of cattle or parentage.

Official proof of identity lies in the core of society; it determines who is eligible to receive a grant, or a loan, who gets to visit the hospital, or who gets to vote during local and national elections. Today, identification processes have become more formal: rules define the nation’s membership or community. This also comes with a variety of duties and benefits.

Why digital ID matters

The ability to prove one’s identity is the basis for participation in daily life—lack of identification and, therefore, verification disadvantages both individuals and governments. Government agencies won’t implement programs effectively, such as pensions. Citizens can’t claim those benefits without proving who they are.

The need for proper identification is not new. From the earliest times, countries registered births and deaths to keep up with changes in their population. Much of the efforts now go towards digital identity systems. This can be a radical change from traditional approaches for governments. Digital identity infrastructures are developed with the user’s needs in mind. They will need continuous technical support and adjustments but are prone to risks such as lack of privacy and possible exclusion.

What makes you, you

A person’s identity can consist of various attributes, including biographic data such as name, gender, and age and biometric data such as a fingerprint or iris scan. When this data is collected and verified, this answers the question, ‘who are you?’ and can be used to identify someone. With credentials issued, such as a unique ID number, these attributes can be used to authenticate citizens: ‘are you who you claim to be?’

Modern identification systems combine three factors:
1. Something you are
Digital biometrics such as fingerprints, iris scan or vein patterns.

2. Something you have
This could include a birth certificate or a mobile ID token.

3. Something you know
A personal identification number (PIN) or password.

Identifying the global identification gap

According to data acquired by the World Bank, an estimated 1 billion people worldwide lack proof of ID or access to a National ID scheme. Women are more likely to not have identification, particularly in low-income countries. This limits their access to critical services and political and economic life participation. In addition, many lack an ID that is safe, trusted, or useful. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that 3.4 billion people have some form of identification but cannot use it in the digital world.

Most unregistered people are in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, where almost half of the population lacks identification.

The right to a legal identity

The right to a legal identity has been on the human rights agenda since 1948. The United Nations’ International Declaration of Human Rights features the right to nationality and recognition from that year. In 2015, the global community adopted Sustainable Development Goals to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all. The SDG 16.9 states: “Provide legal identity for all, including birth registration.”

The SDG does not provide a clear meaning or framework for ‘legal identity.’ Complicating factors prevent the international community from forming a uniform policy and understanding.

Many organisations drive the change needed to accomplish the goal. The World Bank Group’s ID4D Initiative uses global knowledge and expertise across sectors to help countries realise the transformational potential of digital identification systems to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

“The widespread lack of ID in developing countries is a critical stumbling block to national growth. Digital ID combined with the already extensive use of mobile devices in the developing world, offers a transformative solution to the problem.”

The complexity of closing the gap

A challenge is the incoherence and variety of identity systems. Citizens can have many options that serve different purposes, from a ration, pension, or insurance. This variety of options can decrease the need for a nationwide identity system.

A credential such as a passport, a birth certificate, or a driver’s license may not open the same possibilities or opportunities to its holder across the globe, making it impossible to define a uniform system. Political or economic situations can influence travellers’ scrutiny when crossing a border. It also raises the concern that the policy should include people without a national or migrant status.

These complications influence the accurate quantitative review of the identity gap. To understand SDG 16.9, birth registration data can be an essential factor. Data can be missing or incomplete as the estimates are subject to error, but it offers an initial perspective.

Worldwide recognition

The International Identity Day movement promotes the importance of legal identity worldwide on the 16th of September every year. The date matched the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 16:9. ID4Africa has led the ID-Day initiative since 2018. Since then, over 120 organisations have joined as coalition partners, and some countries, like Nigeria, officially celebrate Identity Day as a national holiday.

Birth registration

In short, a Civil Registration and Vital Statistics System or CRVS registers all vital events such as births and deaths, issues birth and death certificates, and compiles and disseminates critical statistics, including the cause of death information. It may also record marriages and divorces.

A good functioning CRVS aims to secure citizens as it recognises their legal identity and ensures the right of access to public services, and promotes inclusion. Counting births and deaths is essential for governments to create effective public health policies – including each life event – and function as a legal instrument.

According to the UN’s 2019 Sustainable Development Goals Report, the average birth registration rate globally is 73 per cent. Less than half of all children under 5 in sub-Saharan Africa have registered births.

With the development of digital identity programs, the strengthening of civil registrations could halt. Reforms to existing identification systems could shift the focus and budget to the problem of citizens’ lack of legal identity.

According to UNICEF research, 166 million under the age of 5 don’t have any form of registration, and even when children are registered, they may not have proof of registration. An estimated 237 million children worldwide currently do not have birth certificates.

The barriers for effective birth registration

There are multiple factors why children are not registered at birth. Rural areas have limited access to registration services or could be costly to travel to. A lack of understanding or access to information could be an essential factor. In some countries, women cannot register their children at all or can only do so with the father present.

Can birth registration function as a legal identity?

Since birth registration is a big part of SDG 16.9, it appears to be the initial building block for legal identity. However, it might not always be sufficient or verifiable in later life. Registries could be poor or yet digitised, which involves transcribing the information into databases. This can result in high maintenance costs for the government, and there is a severe risk of human error in this process.

Moving towards universal birth registration will be a big part of the identity solution; however, it is insufficient. Adults and children currently over the age of five deserve additional attention to create inclusivity.

Types of identity systems

Foundational and functional

Across the world, there are significant differences in how people identify. Almost all developing countries are committed to a national ID, a foundational system for multiple purposes. After development and implementation, the foundational ID credential enables citizens to access various government and private services. Programs developed to serve a specific application, such as taxes, pensions, or health insurance, are functional schemes. These ID systems are typically not considered legal systems unless officially recognised.

Foundational systems are capable of serving a range of needs. The distinction between foundational and functional systems narrows down over time. Functional systems can become a foundational scheme. This happened in Mexico, where the voter ID became the national identification.

Foundational and functional identity systems



  • National ID
  • Serves public and private services


Specific purpose such as:

  • Driver’s license
  • Pension scheme
  • Public health services

The criteria for an inclusive foundational system

A few criteria are essential for the creation of an inclusive foundational database.

The person in the database should exist. No duplicates should be present. A person’s identity is fixed for life, even when the name changes upon marriage. The identity should be linked to legal personality and recognise the law, rights, and responsibilities.

There are several types of registers. The registers should be linked to trace identities to create a compelling identity system. According to ID4Africa’s Digital Identity: The Essential Guide, the following logs should be in place to meet the range of identity needs of a country:

Holds records of all life and death events.

Register every individual with the right to reside in the country: citizens, resident foreigners, and refugees and their addresses.

National Identity Card Register
The register of people with a national identity card is stored with their legally binding rights.

The many interpretations of digital identity

While the concept of a digital identity system (eID) is universal, countries are at different stages and can have their interpretation. Some already have a well-functioning eID, while others have multiple systems that are not interoperable.

Low-income countries that lack IDs are most likely to use eID for primary identification purposes and not services. By doing so, it supports the government in meeting their identification needs. Countries with a higher GDP see the eID as an upgrade from traditional to modern methods with the convenience of connecting digital services.

There is a single provider for a digital ID system recognised by the government as providing proof of legal identity.

Multiple entities can provide a digital ID coordinated or accredited through a framework or authority.

Open market
Countries can have multiple entities providing digital IDs recognised by the government. For example, in the United States, providers operate based on agreements with various government agencies.

ID credentials
The quality and appearance of ID credentials vary. The only common standard is for machine-readable travel documents issued by the International Civil Aviation Organisation.

ID programs around the globe

Digital identification programs are rolling at an incredible speed across the developing world.

India: Aadhaar

India is a true pioneer in identity programs. Aadhaar shows how biometrics pave the way for inclusive nationwide identification. Possessing an Aadhaar number is unrelated to national status and doesn’t prove legal residence or citizenship. The unique Aadhaar number is a 12-digit random number that doesn’t contain any identifying attributes of its holder.

The program is neither a functional nor a national ID program and doesn’t depend on the printing and distributing a physical card. Former Chief Economist of the World Bank, Paul Michael Romer, quoted: “The system in India is the most sophisticated that I’ve seen.”

The concept dates back to 2006. The plan included the government’s change from manual to digital delivery of citizen services. In 2009, the Planning Commission of India introduced the Unique Identification Authority (UIDAI) to develop and implement the necessary institutional, legal and technical infrastructure.


The first Aadhaar ‘card’ was issued in 2010, marking the sheer speed of the program’s rollout. In 2016, the number of users passed the 1 billion mark. Today, over 95% of the population (1.31 billion) possesses an Aadhaar number. The program was cost-effective for the government, with only $1.16 per enrolment.

The Authority relies on biometrics for identification and online authentication. From age 5, citizen’s fingerprints, iris scans, and face scans are an instrument to combat duplicated enrollments across the population. The enrollment process includes visiting a local Enrollment Centre, where applicants submit a form and get their demographic and biometric data captured before receiving their unique identifier.

The program has a very digital and mobile approach. DigiLocker allows Aadhaar holders to sign in using a one-time password sent to the mobile used during enrolment. Once inside, residents will find digitally signed, legally valid electronic documents ranging from driver’s licenses to educational diplomas and insurance policies.

How Aadhaar transformed the Indian banking sector

Aadhaar transformed the Indian banking sector, making it easier to apply and execute ‘know your customer policies. India Stack builds a wide range of applications, including KYC. The Unified Payments Interface facilitates payments between two Aadhaar-identified accounts. The e-KYC enables banks and other businesses to comply with due diligence requirements without copying identification details or documents. After this process, the customer can authorise the essential information required.

The digital decade in Europe

By 2030, the Union should have achieved various digital targets and milestones. All vital public services should be available online, and citizens will have access to electronic medical records. Around 80% of the citizens should use an eID solution. Every EU citizen and resident in the Union will use a personal digital wallet. Many currently use these wallets to store boarding passes and make payments with a smartphone.

The European Digital Identity Wallet will be accepted in all Member States, but it is not obligated to obtain this digital feature. Citizens will prove their identity when accessing certain services online or sharing digital documents without entering personal details. The wallets include trusted digital identities provided by the Member States with safety, convenience, and personal data protection as the essential principles.

The technical framework and toolbox are currently in development, aiming to be finished by September 2022. Once the European Commission has agreed upon the framework, various pilot projects will be initiated for implementation.

Philippines: PhilSys

The Philippines has its eID scheme. PhilSys was initiated in 2018 to establish a single national ID system for all Filipinos. The Philippine digital ID, or PhilID, is a unique tool for official identification and allows citizens access to various public and private sector services, such as opening bank accounts.

The system collects demographic and biometric data, including name, sex, date of birth, marital status, blood type, home address and facial capture, complete fingerprints, and iris scan. The Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) has achieved 50 million registrations for the Philippine Identification System in 2021. Beneficiaries of specific social welfare programs by the Department of Social Welfare and Development of the Philippines use the card as a verification tool to access services.

Digital ID as enabler for sustainable development

Legal identity is a crucial instrument for achieving other sustainable development goals. The success of implementing a reliable digital identity system cannot be measured by the number of citizens registered but by how the overall infrastructure supports the nation’s well-being.

With a valid credential, citizens can claim access to services and help governments deliver services more effectively. Identity programs are essential investments with significant potential. However, identity systems are national assets that require maintenance to create growth. Official proof of identity is a fundamental condition for participation in the economy.

“By 2030, ensure that all men and women, in particular the poor and the vulnerable, have equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to basic services, ownership and control over land and other forms of property, inheritance, natural resources, appropriate new technology and financial services, including microfinance.”

Access to fundamental resources

Access to essential services by making it easier for people to provide documentary evidence of who they are is a great benefit. Many are excluded from accessing healthcare, bank accounts, and education services without a recognised ID. For governments, identification can help deliver services to a more significant number of people and gather data to improve the nation’s health.

Schools require a birth certificate or national ID to enrol in some countries. It can also be a requirement to take part in exams or register for further education in the same country or overseas.

Studies indicate a positive link between birth registration and childhood health regarding vaccinations. Reliable identification enforces SDG 3.8: Achieve universal health coverage, including financial risk protection, access to quality essential healthcare services, and safe, adequate, quality, and affordable essential medicines and vaccines for all. Unique identification of healthcare users is instrumental in increasing access to insurance and other services.

An inclusive identification system is the backbone of gender equality. It can give women greater control over accessing economic resources that couldn’t be obtained without official proof of ID. Developed identification systems can increase control over financial assets.

Fewer than half of all adults in the poorest 40 per cent of households have a bank account. Approximately 375 million unbanked adults in developing countries lack an ID required to open one. Accessibility is vital in driving financial inclusion. Opening and maintaining a bank account with a National ID enables people, including those in rural areas, to be included in the financial system.

A vehicle for governmental development

Identification can be a vehicle for developing policies and programs and promotes opportunities to strengthen the economic situation, stimulate labour market growth, and accountability of institutions. Data provided by digital identity databases can give government insights into their population. These statistics support governments in analysis, policymaking, and –planning.

Tax collection

One of the most significant value contributors to economic growth is tax. Improved tax collection requires accurate identification and helps strengthen public institutions and combat fraud. An advanced ID system could help minimise errors thanks to pre-filled information supplied by employers and bank information.

Integrity of elections

An up-to-date registry is crucial for reducing poll fraud and creating the integrity of free and fair elections. However, it starts with the identification of eligible voters. Before election day, citizens are present in the voters’ register. An identification system with biometrics verifies voters as they vote on the day.

Effective distribution of grants

A robust identification system strengthens the nation’s capacity to deliver programs and services. Many social programs rely on the effectiveness of collaborative processes. The distribution of goods and services happens at a specific location and time, and the responsible organisation is aware of the identity of its beneficiaries.

This approach has some benefits; however, keeping track becomes challenging once the group of beneficiaries grows. As people move to larger towns and cities, traditional processes become less reliable. A method set up as a digital payment together with identification helps transition the manual process. Keeping track of the dispersed goods creates transparency and eliminates ghost consumers.

Combatting epidemics

A digital ID ecosystem connects communities, governments, and other (private) sectors. To treat infectious diseases, it is crucial to identify patients quickly. The Covid-19 pandemic moved public life indoors and online, accelerating the digital revolution. With the help of biometric verification, vaccine programs can run effectively, ensuring every citizen receives the suggested doses.

Innovations in technology as accelerator

There is no standard system laying out how identities should be managed or what the perfect identification system should contain. Countries have many technical options to choose from. Biometric technology has taken up a central position in the rollout of identification systems in developing countries and has expanded the capabilities of existing ID systems. Fingerprint, face, and iris capture are the standard biometrics used in identification.

Multimodal biometric systems require two biometric credentials for identification, such as face and fingerprints, reducing the error rate. This data can establish unique identities in large populations in seconds. Duplicate enrolments can be flagged and manually examined to ensure that people entered the database only once. Screening out multiple entries is a leap forward in reducing fraud, cleaning voter rolls, and improving public administration efficiency.

Another benefit of biometric technology is reducing the biographical documentation required to identify an individual and reducing bookkeeping and administrative costs. Identification answers the question, ‘Who are you?’.

A person identifies as unique. The data is stored in a database, linked to other databases, and compared to others, also familiar as 1:N matching or one-to-many. Biometric systems can authenticate a person, answering, ‘Are you who you say you are?’ This 1:1 matching happens when the data provided is compared with the data stored.

Where and how is it stored?

Electronic databases store identity data. The databases can be a central repository, meaning all collected data merge into a central location. Distributed systems are present in various places. Each government decides on the storage and handling of data.

A good ID’ system starts with a privacy-and-security-by-design approach. ID systems’ functional and technical design should have privacy and security built in from the start.

Estonia’s e-ID program was introduced in 2002. It provides citizens and residents with a comprehensive virtual identity and access to government services. The government focused on the development of a secure method for data exchange. Information sharing between registries happens through the X-Road platform, a centrally managed distributed data exchange layer.

An Estonian digital identity consists of a PIN chosen by the user, an ID card including digital certificates, and the database. The system uses all three factors: something you know (PIN), have (card), and are (biometrics upon enrolment).

Open source: MOSIP

The Modular Open Source Identity Platform offers digital building blocks to design national ID systems based on local laws and decisions. Built as a public good, MOSIP helps governments put a digital ID in place by embracing scalability, security, and privacy practices. The platform aims to empower individuals with unique identities to authenticate themselves anywhere and anytime.

Laxton’s Chameleon 8 is MOSIP compatible, which opens up new opportunities for countries to register and verify citizens wherever they are.

Facing the risks

Secure identity systems can help achieve many development goals and increase collective well-being. However, it is not without risks. Vulnerable groups could be excluded from new ID systems if they are difficult to access. People in remote areas must consider lengthy travel and fees if registration offices open in cities. Long waiting times and complex or confusing registration methods are an obstacle. Those unable to register cannot prove their national status, resulting in further economic exclusion.

Infants and children are often not included in identity management systems. Accurate capture of biometrics of young children remains a challenge and raises the question of consent. Digitising birth certificates and civil registries makes it easier to authenticate citizens in later life.

Technology can form another barrier. When digital methods get implemented, there is a risk some will get left behind. Older people might have difficulty adapting to new technologies. Systems that ask for online authentication challenge those in remote areas or when connectivity is unreliable.

Stateless people or immigrants may have limited opportunities. This is not the case in a system like Aadhaar that doesn’t require a national status to obtain a unique Aadhaar number. However, this doesn’t imply that nationality is irrelevant.

Privacy concerns

The digital revolution increased the use of personal data. A well-functioning eID system is based on collecting personal information and can be seen as an invasion of people’s privacy. Worrying about data protection can result in slower adoption. A 2018 survey by the ID4Africa initiative revealed that 35 countries in Africa have no DP laws or authority.

Legal framework as a requirement

Data privacy measures increase as more countries implement identity systems and the coverage expands. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) developed the Guidelines on the Protection of Privacy and Transborder Flows of Personal Data in 1980. Today, these guidelines form the basis of many privacy agreements and laws. The spread of these laws is welcome; however, they might not offer much in countries with little capacity to implement them.

Mitigating the risks

As a start, governments can eliminate fees for birth registration. Reviewing the requirements for obtaining ID documents can also be a step in the right direction. The formalisation of identity should always support inclusive development.