What do you have to prove who you are? Formal identification is a prerequisite for living and working in a digital age. We need to identify ourselves to open a bank account, vote, get a job, access education or healthcare, receive a social transfer, buy a SIM card, travel, open a social media account – in short, in every interaction, and from birth to death, at every stage in life. Yet, the World Bank estimates that over 1.1 billion people in the world lack proof of legal identity[1]. As Nandan Nilekani, chief architect of the Unique Identification system (Aadhaar) in India, states “globally, identity as a public good is now becoming a critical topic”[2]. SDG 16.9 focusses on legal identity for all by 2030, but where are the stories and voices of individuals, particularly in low-income contexts? What are new identity practices in a connected age?  What is the experience obtaining a particular type of identity credential? Or not being able to obtain it? Do individuals know where to go to get one or where to go if there is a problem? What are the vulnerabilities individuals face?

Identity is complex because it is multidisciplinary – it is legal of course, but it’s also personal, political, cultural and psychological – and now, analogue and digital.  An identity credential is not a simple piece of paper or card – it’s fraught with power and politics, and now has additional complications of networked technologies and biometrics.

Over the past nine months, we conducted research with the International Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore to:

  • Surface and convey the experience of managing identities and identity artifacts, from the perspective of people in lower–income communities in India
  • Uncover pain points and under-articulated user needs around identity management including the implications of identity systems from voter IDs to Aadhaar cards and social media
  • Suggest principles to improve user experiences and the design of identity services
  • Integrate (1-3) to protect/promote individual privacy, agency and dignity

We held 150 interviews in three states (Karnataka, Delhi and Assam), observed around thirty identity-based transactions (e.g. registering for a SIM) and talked to experts in the field. Here are the main themes emerging from the research:


Theme 1

There are dynamic, human identity practices that require our consideration

Subtheme 1 – People have always had, and managed, multiple personal identities.

People have always had to prove who they are in multiple contexts. We found that transactions and relationships are always characterised by the negotiation of social forces such as literacy, status and power. New identity systems and technology are integrated into these repertoires, transactions and relationships, for example as Aadhaar cards are integrated into the uses of ration card, voter card and driving license credentials. Policy makers and designers can be more effective when they recognise how systems and policies are incorporated into people’s social, cultural and political lives.

Subtheme 2 – Physical identity artifacts matter, even in the digital era.

People value the material nature of identity credentials even when the proof is digital. Many of our respondents described photocopying (and laminating) cards because they’re used regularly. People need material artifacts because specific transactions require physical documentation, and specific relationships require specific credentials. For example, respondents described how holding cards could mitigate police harassment or demonstrate caste identity. Although Aadhaar cards are increasingly ubiquitous, no respondent had done away with all other credentials. Recognising the importance of material artifacts can help policy makers and designers avoid falling into a ‘digital-only’ trap. 

Subtheme 3 – Every identity transaction means something to the people involved.

The transaction lens reveals the complexity of everyday practices, showing how the mechanics of obtaining and using identity credentials is complex and involve challenges that are not easily overcome. For example, respondents described how they rely on others to overcome literacy barriers to get and use cards, revealing the dynamics of power. The transaction lens also reveals how the use of identity credentials in transactions is shaped by deeply important meanings such as questions of belonging, access and nationality. Recognising the complexity of how artifacts are used in transactions can help policy makers and designers develop systems and technologies that complement rather than conflict with the complexity of everyday transactions.

Subtheme 4 – Like an “identity mosaic”, people select and combine identity elements for transactions during the course of everyday life.

The transaction lens shows how people hold multiple identities which are deployed and negotiated according to the demands of specific transactions. Respondents described how at different times they are wives, workers, patients and Indians, with different artifacts required in specific transactions related to each identity. These identities are mosaics made up of  ‘tiles’ that identity artifacts reveal, highlighting implications for questions of privacy, such as income status or pregnancy. Policy makers and designers can design better systems when they use a mosaic lens to help build technologies that are mindful of how they interact with individual mosaics.


Theme 2

Everyone is vulnerable when identifying themselves – and ID systems can sometimes just shift, or even introduce new, vulnerabilities

Subtheme 1 – There is a tension between fixed identities within systems and people’s shifting, dynamic lives.

Life is dynamic, unpredictable and informal. Systems are not, and identity systems are especially formal, static and slow to adapt to changing situations. Many of those we interviewed talked about systems unable to cope with change of status in family members (birth, marriage, death, moving house, moving states). Living in a world where digital databases control access your essential services makes it hard for those who have no conception of a database. Migrants are particularly affected by this.

Subtheme 2 – Crossing borders makes managing identities a struggle for migrants.

There are two challenges – the first of needing identity artifacts to prove one’s citizenship (particularly in Assam) and the second for migrants moving from state to state. In Assam, we found residents had to constantly prove they were Assamese and of Indian (rather than Bangladeshi) origin – near impossible for those who don’t have documents to prove this. In terms of migrants, we found many in “Kesarpur” in particular – a peri-urban garment factory area near Delhi – faced challenges in getting local proof IDs. Landlords created problems and/or asked for extra money to sign proof of address documents. One interviewee recounted a landlord saying “I would give a litre of my blood rather than an electricity bill”. The same interviewee finally forged this not only for herself out of desperation but also for others. It seems that jugaad, meaning innovation, is double-edged – innovation but borne of frustration.

Subtheme 3 – At the moment of enrolling into ID systems, vulnerabilities are exposed for many.

There are no vulnerable communities but rather vulnerable circumstances. We talked to those who were registered disabled, identified as LGBTQ, or felt discriminated against for other reasons – caste, class, literacy or income-level. A transgender activist stated that identifying as transgender brought more challenges than benefits. An HIV/AIDS campaigner noted that if patients now need to provide an Aadhaar card to obtain anti-retroviral drugs[3], they are less likely to go because of the fear and stigma surrounding AIDS. From these interviews (although again, not representative), we heard of concerns ranging from inefficiency and a lack of sensitivity in the identification process (e.g. no Braille on ID cards; no separate times to obtain cards if disabled; lack of dignity in assessments whether disability or sexuality etc) to fear of persecution once formally identified.

Subtheme 4 – ID systems often create vulnerabilities for the intermediaries who facilitate the transactions.

Although intermediaries can be in a situation of power, they can also bend the rules when they try to help, especially if informal, family ties trump formal systems – this may be putting themselves at risk, so are themselves are vulnerable. The attitude of these street-level bureaucrats is critical. In addition, it is not easy to be an intermediary and constantly be aware of changes and procedures. Intermediaries need to be supported but also accountable so they do not take advantage of their position of power.

Subtheme 5 – There are persistent tensions around gender and identity.

Gender is beyond binary. All the 75 women we spoke to experienced different challenges, which intersected with awareness of process, resources to pursue identification (e.g. getting documents together), a supportive network, confidence, and so on. Single mothers, working women and widows (not that these are exclusive) showed the greatest confidence and resourcefulness in getting credentials such as Aadhaar, ration cards etc. Mothers are particularly aware of the importance of credentials (especially Aadhaar) for their children. Finally, male relations are critical – men tend to help women to obtain credentials, but they can also take advantage of this, by withholding credentials or using them for themselves (e.g. putting a women’s name down for a loan but using the loan themselves).


Theme 3

These problems and vulnerabilities can be mitigated with better designed identity systems and policies

Subtheme 1 – Critical issues – such as privacy – are often abstract to the user. There is a need to use clear language to describe them.

When resource-constrained individuals say they don’t care about who sees their identity information, it’s easy to say “people don’t care about privacy”. But if one changes the conversation to specific scenarios of potential harms, people can better understand and describe the actual impact on their lives. For example, we heard forceful defenses of why it was important to keep one’s financial loan book private. Privacy is such a critical element of identification and identity systems that it’s imperative to find the right language and context for these conversations to ensure that policies and processes take into account the needs and perspectives of the user population.

Subtheme 2 – Intermediaries who help people use identity systems are immensely valuable – ID systems and policies should support them more.

Complex, deeply socially embedded systems like state-based identity will always require  intermediaries of different types to facilitate processes and frictions that end-users are unable or unwilling to do themselves. By tracking and understanding the different roles intermediaries play in a system, designers can identify key pain points and the relative impacts they have. Our research showed that rural, illiterate residents were some of the most reliant on intermediaries, highlighting the institutional barriers and distinct options facing different populations. Formally acknowledging these roles and incorporating them into the system design process can enable more of the benefits of intermediaries while mitigating their most negative impacts.

Subtheme 3 – People have multiple identities that they value. Systems should be designed around and utilise this reality; it is not a ‘bug’ to be fixed.

There are many incentives for the state to move toward a singular or integrated identity system, including better efficiencies and increased leverage for the administration of services. And there are arguments for a singular identity credential from the user’s perspective as well, as it may be simpler to manage only one credential vs. many. Yet multiple forms of identification were helpful to many of the people we spoke with, primarily by providing a range of options for general authentication purposes that hedges against loss or problems with any one credential. At the same time, people can fall between the cracks of these multiple systems, so we need to have better integration between them.



1: https://blogs.worldbank.org/category/tags/id4d
2: Sunday Times of India, 2 April 2017
3: See also the State of Aadhaar Report.