Program administrators and government officials should be exposed to the user side and perspective at each stage.

Technology Designer, Bangalore

If there is one theme that runs across our research, it is that human interactions remain as important to the construction and use of identities as new digital transactions are becoming.

On the one hand, many of our 150 respondents told us that possessing ID credentials opened the door to many direct benefits, such as obtaining subsidies and SIM cards, the ability to vote, drive, and more. Women in particular felt a sense of empowerment when identities formalized them, particularly in entering the labor force. Enrolling in Aadhaar was also a standardized process (in comparison to voter IDs, for example) which many appreciated (although getting the feeder documents for it was often a challenge). Identity credentials, particularly voter IDs and Aadhaar, also imparted an empowered sense of “belonging” and of “being Indian,” dynamics that help materialize a sense of inclusion in an imagined community.

On the other hand, as we saw, there were also multiple practices, parallel processes, and meaning in every transaction, not to mention the vulnerabilities many faced. Indeed, we found that the way people use identity artifacts reveals the push and pull of negotiated life in ways that go beyond narrow verification of identity in a specific context. From the use of credentials in the exercise of power to the intrinsic meaning attached to artifacts, identity systems are incorporated into the social fabric of everyday life. This incorporation in many cases is intangible yet full of significance.

Our conversations about these tensions and interplays—between the human and the technical, the analog and the digital, and between empowerment and vulnerability, are already underway. Concurrent to the fieldwork, the project conducted a set of stakeholder consultations, sharing our research process and emerging findings in an interactive process that included workshops in Delhi and Bengaluru with people from a broad cross section of the identity community. At these workshops Indian experts and stakeholders working on identity technologies emphasized the importance of putting users—people—at the heart of the development of identity systems. As the technology designer in Bangalore said at the end of a long workshop on research findings, policymakers and program administrators can develop better identity systems if they understand how users of these technologies experience and perceive the management and authentication of identity.

This final section presents key implications in the words of experts who generously contributed their knowledge, expertise, and insight to advancing this research on the complexity of identity practices in India. They serve as voices from India that can inform efforts to build more principled, empowering identity systems in the wider world. We conclude the report with focused, actionable recommendations drawn from the sections of the report.

Important lessons for us all

By surfacing the voices and lived experiences of real people, the Identities Project has generated deep insights into the day-to-day practices of identity in India. These insights reflect learnings from Indian experiences of managing identity artifacts, but they are also insights that others can learn from as they develop identity technologies in other contexts. In many ways, this user-focused, empirical work is a natural complement to high-level guidelines such as the Principles on Identification for Sustainable Development1 [The Principles], providing the on-the-ground experiences that contextualize and make real the policies and system functions that otherwise exist only in the abstract.

The Identities Project adopted a wide lens approach, exploring the complexity of individuals’ use of identity technologies, but going beyond the constraints of a narrow focus on use cases, on “technologies-in-use” and on instrumental functional activities. This approach reveals both the benefits and challenges presented by identity technologies. We found that people find value in the use of identity credentials in a wide range of ways, from recognition of eligibility to receive social services to verification to access private-sector services such as bank accounts and SIM cards. At the same time, we show how the introduction of new identity artifacts can also introduce challenges, such as shifting, rather than eliminating, vulnerabilities. For example, we saw how women were able to use modern identity credentials to formally access state benefits such as rations, but also faced increased vulnerability through male control over their credentials or being made visible through the demand for unveiled photographs.

See the whole picture

The Principles2 explicitly recognize the importance of designing identity systems that are responsive to people’s needs, systems that are “flexible, scalable, and meet the needs and concerns of end-users (individuals).”3 Too often, however, consideration of the end-user manifests in a range of circumscribed use cases representing specific tasks or processes, and thus misses the broader picture and social context within which those actions take place.

To better see and capture this broader context, we relied firstly on expansive interviewing techniques, but also developed a method of data collection and analysis which we call the “transaction lens.” This approach considers each interaction between the individual and the system or its agents as a transaction, and that studying these interactions provides a window into many of the complex underlying belief systems, power relationships, institutional constraints, and hidden meanings that shape the individual’s experience managing her identity. By recording these transactions and creating a novel way of presenting those experiences, we hope to expose this complexity in a manner that is intuitive and accessible.

Importantly, the transaction lens sees not only the individual, but also the agent (e.g., a ration shop owner, policeman, bank manager) with whom they are interacting, and can therefore tell a broader story that includes both perspectives, and the beliefs, goals, power relations, capabilities and challenges of each. The transaction lens also sees artifacts, such as a photocopied ID card, as important actors in the interaction, as they are embedded with social meaning and power beyond their original or designed intent. With this lens, even mundane identity transactions—e.g., presenting a ration card to get supplies—are full of meaning and significance. The transaction lens highlights how identities are often located not in individuals but in established relationships with people and institutions.

Remember Nalin, who described how the Gram Panchayat used to cross verify and vouch for someone whenever required. Nalin’s identity, like so many others, was rooted in relationships that have history and are shaped by the wider social context in which he lives. The value of identity artifacts is also shaped by context and can mean that functional credentials serve unanticipated purposes, or that foundational systems can fail in their aspiration to be a universal credential. For example, many of our respondents in Assam described the 1971 electoral roll as the most important artifact in their inventory of identity credentials. A design exercise that focused on singular individuals or use cases would struggle to capture these complexities of the everyday presentation of identity artifacts. This is why we argue that taking a broad approach to studying identity transactions— including both end-users and intermediaries—is critical to understanding how these systems can most effectively serve and empower users.

Expanding the focus from singular functions and use cases to the use of identity artifacts in everyday practices reveals how all identity interactions are full of meaning and significance. For example, although verification of identity is required to open a bank account and a bank account is a prerequisite for many other credentials, it’s not uncommon for personal relationship to be a sufficient source of authentication. Remember Doddaraghu, the ration shop owner from Garudahali in rural Karnataka, describing how people bring family members’ cards and describing authenticating recipients because We keep seeing the people, who come and take ration from our shop. We interact with them every day.

Agency, privacy, and power

Rigorous user education mechanism around privacy control, agency, and choice right from the beginning of the deployment.

Identity Technologist, Delhi

A core tenet of our research has been that agency, privacy, and power are present in every interaction in which identity negotiation takes place, and are critical factors in determining whether identity technologies are empowering for users. Reflecting concerns about the power that states have to determine which identity credential people use, a number of stakeholders from India flagged the importance of considering how use of credentials is empowering or disempowering. As one expert recommended, Examine how trust and accountability work in the system and how power equations change because of the ID system: how are citizens and users being empowered or disempowered? Remember how in many of the accounts we’ve shared respondents such as Shailaja, Anjali and many others described how they had to use specific cards in order to access the services they needed. Remember also how Shailaja described how she had to enter her husband’s name, even though they have been separated for years, or how Anjali described the power her landlord had because new identity credentials require evidence of local address. Our research findings emphasize that digital identity credentials rarely disrupt these power relations.

Designing digital identity systems around users’ needs, and ensuring that users are aware of their utility is an important aspect of operationalizing the principle of empowerment that is at the heart of the Principles.4 Strengthening digital literacy—of the utility of digital identity systems, of the way digital identity systems function and the capabilities to effectively use digital identity systems is key to realizing the empowerment potential of these new technologies. Strengthening the ability of individuals to be in control over their process of registration, their ability to understand and access the benefits linked to the use of ID credentials are lessons that designers of ID systems should incorporate into their planning.

As we’ve argued, in addition to power, privacy is perhaps the most important dimension that determines how users experience the use of new identity technologies. Privacy was also recognized by many of the experts as a critical issue in the design of future identity systems. For example, one technology expert emphasized the importance of anonymity, urging policymakers and developers to Design for anonymous users too—don’t make it mandatory. Identity and services based on identity should be distinct ideas. Privacy is the most challenging area to address in the design of ethical, inclusive identity systems. As we’ve argued, the best identity systems should follow basic principles of minimal disclosure to limit what data is shared during identification and authentication, and ideally utilize zero-knowledge proofs to conduct authentication transactions so that the requesting entity only receives a yes/no and not any PII. Putting individuals in control as much as possible over the management of their data is key to realizing digital ID services’ potential for empowerment and sustainable development. Addressing privacy issues requires an understanding of the contextual nature of privacy, and the particular harms that result when it is breached.

Lessons from india

My advice is for India to serve as a lesson to the rest of the world designing ID systems on “what not to do.”

Civil Society Activist, Bangalore

The development of identification technologies in India has been incredibly rapid and incredibly controversial. Whilst it has successfully been incorporated into a wider diversity of government and private sector services, it has attracted a great deal of debate and criticism, as indicated in the quote above. Importantly, nearly everyone we spoke to as part of our research, users and stakeholders, recognized the importance of utility of identification technologies, but were concerned about the implementation. Indeed, discussion at events emphasized the need to assess and articulate the benefits of digital identity systems, particularly as they are layered over informal, analog interactions.

The Principles5 are an important step towards building a common foundation from which to build identity systems that mitigate the challenges presented by these new technologies and to strengthen their potential to be truly empowering. We argue that these principles are a necessary step towards that goal, but that alone they are not sufficient. As we showed in our discussion around privacy, the abstract concepts embodied in the principles can only be realized if they are translated into the language and understood as practices that users experience in their everyday lives. User research that takes a wide open, transaction based approach can help reveal these complexities that are needed to inform the design of truly ethical and empowering digital identity services.


The Identities Project is not a comprehensive account of all ID systems in India nor an exhaustive list of the practices and vulnerabilities that individuals experience. Nor is this a full tally of the benefits vs the harms of identity systems, but rather a richer exploration of the benefits and harms as recounted by the individuals we spoke to. There remains work to be done to explore these benefits and harms in greater depth and to identify further challenges to the successful implementation of digital identity technologies. The experience of identity technologies is always individual, subjective, and specific to context—and each context needs this deep dive. If designers are to build identity based on the strongest of principles they need to know what these concepts mean in the experiences of the users they are designing for. The ultimate goal of building digital identity systems has to be to meet the needs of the individuals who use them. As one of our research respondents put it we want ID systems that make our lives easier, not harder. Empowering individuals and making their lives easier can be best achieved when their views and experiences are incorporated into the design of new digital identity systems.

  1. World Bank, “Ten Principles on Identification for Sustainable Development” (Washington DC: World Bank, February 2017).

  2. Ibid.

  3. Ibid., 12.