Secure identities can boost inclusivity in the digital economy

05 April 2019

As countries use digital identities to spur e-commerce, they should ensure the human rights of the people they seek to serve are protected.

As identity plays a critical role in the digital economy, countries have a duty of care to protect human rights when implementing programmes that create digital identities, experts said at UNCTAD eCommerce Week in Geneva, Switzerland on April 4.  

In a session that examined the concept of digital identity and digital rights as they relate to government programmes and e-commerce, attendees learned that people participate in the digital economy if they trust that their digital identities are secure and free from misuse.

“Digital identity provides accessibility and inclusion, but identifying people can put them at risk,” said Guillermo Beltra, a policy director at Access Now, a non-governmental organization that defends the digital rights of users at risk around the world.

Digital Identity

“If we don’t get digital identity programmes right from the start, they can be prone to misuse and undermine development objectives,” Mr. Beltra said.

Towards digital identities for all

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals provide the ambitious target that all people will be able to obtain a “legal identity” by 2030.

New forms of digital identities create opportunities to enhance sustainable development through e-commerce, e-communication, e-government, and e-health, among other sectors, said David-Olivier Jaquet-Chiffelle, a professor of digital investigation and identification at Switzerland’s University of Lausanne.

On the flip side, digital identities can heighten money laundering, create new criminal opportunities and endanger democratic processes, warned Mr. Jaquet-Chiffelle. With burgeoning digital footprints also come risks such as negative profiling, large personal data leaks, identity theft and illegal creation of digital identities.

“It is important to think about all the potential benefits and risks when developing systems that manage identities,” Mr. Jaquet-Chiffelle noted while providing insights into the foundations of digital identity.

Experiences and examples

The session, led by Estonia, examined experiences and examples of various countries in rolling out digital identity systems.

In Estonia, most government services are already digitalized, said Andre Pung, the Baltic nation’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva.

"You can do many things digitally in Estonia, but you still can’t get married electronically," Mr. Pung said.

“In the last elections, 20% of Estonians voted electronically – the highest ever,” he added.

Participants also learned about Estonia’s e-residency programme, which allows non-Estonians access to Estonian services such as company formation, banking, payment processing, and taxation.

Benin is following in Estonia’s footsteps in using digital identity to enhance the provision of government services and to address developmental challenges.

“As a least developed country, we are learning from Estonia and partnering with them,” said Eloi Laourou, Benin’s ambassador to the World Trade Organization.

“Digital identity is about human beings. It is essential for economic and social progress. In Benin, we have a legal and policy framework for managing digital identity to improve the way we do things, particularly in the area of e-government,” said Mr. Laourou.

He said Benin has put a premium on digital identity to improve public administration as well as to enhance services in sectors such as healthcare, birth registration, national identity management, agriculture, housing, and security services.

The fifth edition of eCommerce Week – an annual gathering that draws leading e-commerce figures, start-ups, policy makers and officials from around the world – is taking place in Geneva from 1 to 5 April. The theme of this year’s week, which comprises dozens of sessions, is "From Digitalization to Development".