11/24/2016 10:21 am ET Updated Nov 25, 2017

How Sixty Million Refugees Can Prove Who They Are

Juanmonino via Getty Images

A one-woman public-private partnership is trying to provide digital ID to more than a billion people worldwide.

[This piece was republished from Apolitical]

That is the number of people who have no way, not even a birth certificate, of proving who they are. Without ID, these people, predominantly women and children in Asia and Africa, can't get healthcare, welfare or bank accounts. That figure also encompasses, most urgently, the 60 million refugees worldwide and many women trafficked into forced prostitution, whose lack of ID prevents them getting help.

'It was one thing when we were living in a paper-based world,' says Dakota Gruener, Executive Director and presently sole full-time employee of ID2020, the public-private partnership. 'You can understand how providing people with pieces of paper and ensuring they were included in a larger registry was difficult. But in the era of Google and Facebook, it makes no sense.'

"In the era of Google and Facebook, it makes no sense."

ID2020 has enlisted the UN, some of the world's most powerful tech companies and dozens of start-ups to see whether a new technology, perhaps blockchain, could solve this problem.

ID2020 was started by a pioneer of financial technology, John Edge, who told Apolitical, 'If you create a new derivative contract, it's like a human being born. It's a thing that doesn't exist that now does exist that needs an identity in a system. The trading system we built trades trillions of derivatives, stocks, bonds, and options. And there are systems that manage lots and lots of individual identities and transactions.'

"Look, this is the future. There is just no question."

At a summit ID2020 organised at the UN headquarters in New York earlier this year, Marley Gray, who runs Microsoft's work on blockchain, said, 'We have a sort of technological perfect storm. First is the cloud, then very inexpensive mobile devices, and then this notion of establishing secure identity not just for individuals, but for everything, to be able to track and transact securely. The challenge is not necessarily the technology or the organisation, it's bringing it all together.'

ID2020 is not trying to put forward one particular solution. Rather, it has convened a group including development agencies, think tanks and companies such Microsoft, PWC, Cisco, Accenture and Deloitte to spend the years to 2020 figuring out what a solution might look like.

Nevertheless, Niall McCann of the UN Development Program, which does not yet have any formal relationship with ID2020 but has been involved in discussions on the project, told Apolitical, 'Look, this is the future. There is just no question that this is the future, digitising paper identity documents and making them into applications on a smart device.'

At the moment, UNICEF makes great efforts to register children at birth, and the UN's sustainable development goal on identity cites birth registration as the benchmark for securing legal identity, but, says McCann, 'What do you do for people whose birth was never recorded or what about countries where management of civil registration is so poor that records have been lost or destroyed or they're simply not able to go back and find a copy for people who've lost one?

'I've got my birth certificate but it's a very very old piece of paper at this point. It's a piece of paper with no photograph and, even if it did have a photograph, it would be a photograph just of a baby. I hope Ireland has an electronic database to back that up, but what about countries that don't, where people have lost theirs or are carrying around a shabby handwritten bit of paper?'

Moreover, a lot of work on registration is being done at cross-purposes. UNICEF stops tracking people when they become adults, while UNDP engages in huge voter-registration drives, but then often leaves when the elections are over.

"My birth certificate is a very very old piece of paper."

In fact, UNDP has used biometric tech to help create voter registers - preventing people voting more than once - in more than a dozen countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea, Zambia, Bangladesh and Nepal. But when it comes to registration, many prospective voters don't have any ID documents to sign up with in the first place. Says McCann, 'So several countries have said, can you now help us do a national identity card or register using this same biometric equipment?'

Attempts to free identity from pieces of paper and bring it into the digital age are proliferating around the world. India's Aadhaar program has scanned the irises and taken the fingerprints of 1.07billion people, and issued them with an ID number. New South Wales in Australia is switching its driving licences onto smartphone apps and, while the state works up to fully digital driving licences, due 2018, has just begun trialling the technology with things like fishing licences.

But national identity registers come with considerable risks of their own. As John Edge puts it, 'Aadhaar scares the daylights out of me. You wouldn't have wanted to deploy Aadhaar in Rwanda a few years ago. It would be a very efficient way of killing people. A centralised biometric identity system, if it falls into the wrong hands, is a weapon.'

Some countries, like the UK, have rejected proposals for what is essentially a unified digital list of everyone who lives in the country. There are several nightmare scenarios: the people in, say, the driver licensing agency get to look at your tax records; a racist government cross-references data on ethnicity and crime and abuses the results; the database breaks and people's identities are digitally extinguished.

That is why the people behind ID2020 are especially interested in a decentralised system, i.e. something involving blockchain. The technology, which underlies bitcoin, holds tamper-proof records across a network of computers. Although it seems unlikely that there will ever be a global ID system independent of governments, it is conceivable that the poorest and most vulnerable people would be able to log into a system and prove who they are to social services, banks or foreign governments.

"This can protect a girl stuck in a mud hut with no electricity, no water, no education, not even a road to walk to school"

Dakota Gruener has also conceived a means by which to get many of those people registered in the first place. She came to ID2020 from GAVI, a public-private partnership that vaccinates children in poor countries. It has a huge distribution network which an ID scheme could piggyback onto. As Edge puts it, 'You've got the kid's arm in your hand, you're injecting them, and you don't capture their identity or medical records.'

The potential is enormous. In Malawi, for example, some 90% of children are vaccinated, but fewer than 5% have a birth certificate. Worldwide, around 86% of children get three doses of the diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine, generally considered the gold standard, but an estimated 98% get vaccinated with at least something.

Ruchira Gupta, a campaigner against sex trafficking who also participated in the ID2020 summit, said, 'I think this is going to be system-changing, because it can protect the last girl, who is stuck in a mud hut in a village and has no electricity, no water, no education, not even a road to walk to school, no second set of clothes, perhaps no food, and what that ID can do for her is link her to government services.'

But for all the exciting developments, the question of precisely how this nut can be cracked is complex in the extreme. The World Bank also has a program, ID4D, which is examining some of the policy dimensions. The people involved with ID2020 believe that the answer will come from bringing governments and international organisations together with tech companies and start-ups, partly because private enterprise is pouring money into developing these kinds of technologies, and partly because it would be practically impossible for non-specialists in, say, UNDP or the World Bank, to stay at the forefront of everything that's being invented.

Edge himself is profoundly committed to the project. PTB ventures, a company he cofounded with David Fields, has invested in GovCoin, a blockchain app that the UK government is trialling for welfare claimants. And he says he became interested in socially beneficial business because of a girl he met in a bar, and went on to marry. 'The girl I met works in early childhood development. She asked me on our first date what I was doing to make a difference. And the answer was: not very much.'

The ensuing conversation led him to see Meena, a Lucy Liu film about a girl trafficked into prostitution, then to discovering that 230million children have no form of ID, and eventually to ID2020. 'If I want to write a white paper, there's a hundred places,' he said. 'If you want to start getting the private sector to work with the UN, there was nothing. And who currently has a plan to get some form of identity for the 60million plus stateless people? The answer to my mind is, aside from ID2020, no one.'