Putting people first in the identity conversation

Episode 1 - Article 1

Who are you?

It’s a question we answer several times a day in order to access services, order goods, or join a community group. It is the gateway to operating in a formal society. For most of us, there is more than one answer: I am a mother and a sister; I am a teacher and a rider of the bus; I am a customer of this bank and that telecom company. And we each carry a collection of documents and artifacts to prove these identities, as needed.


I have this Aadhaar card from Tamil Nadu

Then there is this Aadhaar card that I have applied for here in Karnataka

I also have Voters Cards and Ration Cards from both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka

I have a PAN card, too

I got it made here in Bengaluru

When a low-income wage laborer takes his wife’s Ration Card to the Public Distribution System in India, he’s also presenting more than one identity to the bureaucrat behind the desk.

Some of those identities are not written on his documents, and some are even contextual, relative to the counterpart he faces across the desk; his name, his family role, and his socioeconomic status; whether he’s of the same caste, clan, or political community as the welfare distributor; whether he’s literate, confident, or disabled. These all become salient in different ways, both according to the specific nature of the interaction and the technological artifact being used.

Just as each person comprises a multitude of identities dependent on context, each new identity system involves a complex layering of new technologies over older ones. Today, systems are being designed and implemented across the world by governments and the private sector without the global standards to ensure those systems protect and empower the people that will use them — but these standards are coming. And as they emerge, our research aims to inform them with the real human experience of identity.


The World Bank estimates that more than one and a half billion people in developing countries do not have any form of legal identification. Global development actors are increasingly recognizing the fundamental need for identity in supporting progress out of poverty, but there is currently little research into the experiences of the people who would use those new systems. Of course, those perspectives are vital for avoiding unintended and unanticipated problems in adoption and implementation. This is reflected in the ten Principles on Identification for Sustainable Development jointly developed by fifteen global organizations led by the World Bank.

1.5bn+ People in developing countries do not have any form of legal identification

These ten principles put users at the heart of identity systems, from Inclusion — ensuring universal coverage and removing barriers to access; through Design — creating robust, interoperable and open standard platforms that protect user privacy, to Governance – safeguarding user rights, establishing clear institutional accountability and legal frameworks for user grievances.

Our research aims to help bridge this gap, both in India and across the wider world, by directly involving individuals — through consultation, research, and participation — so that emerging identity systems and technologies will deliver what users want and need to protect their privacy. Here’s one example of the tensions users experience between the demands of identity technologies and their expectations of privacy.


Identities, not identity.

The research will examine user experiences of identity technologies with impartiality, exploring their implications for individual agency over identity management, privacy, and dignity. The perspectives we’ll be hearing — and sharing with you — will be from individuals in India, but they will be relevant to the effective implementation of identity-based technologies for sustainable development across the world.

Here’s one example of the tensions users experience between the demands of identity technologies and their expectations of privacy. While many people have told us they don’t worry about the personal information in identity systems being shared with others, those with higher levels of education were more aware of the dangers.

As one respondent argued:

If a poor man’s ID like my ID is lost, it doesn’t matter that someone else, at the most, will get to know my address and where I live and come and find me.

I have nothing to lose. I have no money

Here’s another example, from one respondent with two names, on how challenging it is to reflect the fluidity of human identities in a single system or artifact:

I was born and raised as Devi, [but] because the school refused to admit me, my father changed my name to Durgadas. It was an emergency situation, where my name had to be changed for me to get into a school.

But he had not foreseen that it will be a problem in the future for a person with two names.

For Devi/Durgadas, control over his legal name has led to conflicts between his professional and personal identities. In a world where digital credentials are increasingly central to coordinating our lives as we move between different services, platforms, and devices, this kind of problem is a critical issue around which improperly considered identity systems can deny users agency and access.

Our research will emphasize the importance of the broader context of individuals’ identity experience, and of a holistic, deep view into how people use identity to engage with the institutions — financial, health, government — that matter most to them. We want to uncover issues of power, as well as the cultural dimensions that most consultative user experience and design efforts miss.

In short, we want to put people first — and to use this work to build practical, real technologies and services that will serve as the cornerstone of ethical and inclusive digital societies and economies.

Read Article Two: How communities are solving their problems with ID technologies