Culture

UN wants a universal digital ID for your data

Humanitarians and tech companies say a digital form of identification would be particularly useful for refugees separated from their personal documents.

Tech leaders and humanitarians speak at the ID2020 Summit at the United Nations headquarters.

Alfred Ng/CNET

Maja Vujinovic knows first-hand what it's like to be at a border when you don't have identification.

In 1993, her family was escaping Yugoslavia as its sovereignty was crumbling. At one border check, she heard a guard yelling, "So what? They don't exist. You can do with them what you'd like."

Because Yugoslavia stopped existing as a nation, countries weren't recognizing the IDs of its onetime citizens, Vujinovic said. Officially, her family's names, birth dates, professional history -- none of it existed.

Now, as the chief innovation officer at General Electric Digital, she spoke at the ID2020 Summit at the United Nations headquarters in New York on Monday, a day ahead of World Refugee Day. At the summit, tech companies like Microsoft and Accenture and humanitarian groups including the World Food Programme and the UN Refugee Agency want to create a digital identification for every person on the planet, one that's tied to their fingerprints, birth date, medical records, education, travel, bank accounts and more. 

It's a lofty goal, but a universal digital ID could ease the headache of travel and potentially ensure that you'll have access to it, since you could pull it up via a phone app. That's a particularly resonant issue for refugees, many of whom have to leave their homes behind at a moment's notice. During times of chaos, documents are often the last thing on refugees' minds, but the first problem they run into when they're seeking asylum.

There's still the challenge of adoption, but the summit was more about showing off what the technology can do. 

Accenture demonstrated a working prototype that would provide a person's information through an app. In the absence of a personal device, that person could still be recognized through fingerprints or iris scans, as long as that information was in the database.

During the demonstration, David Treat, a managing director at Accenture, said that the prototype took three weeks to develop and that hoped it would be used at borders to show identification through QR codes.

"We're not talking about years and years of build," Treat said. "The technology is here, and it's scalable."

It's a scary thought to put all your personal information -- including your medical records and banking information -- in a single app, but experts at the summit believe that blockchain technology, a way of using databases to encrypt data that's also used for bitcoin, can protect users.

It's not a reality yet. For now, the ID2020 Summit is pointing to India as a case study of what a world with a digital ID could look like.

In 2009, India launched Aadhaar, a digital ID program in which citizens voluntarily enroll name, birth date, gender, address, phone number, email, 10 fingerprints, two eye scans and photo. In exchange, they can use the digital ID to sign documents online, apply for credit and jobs, go to hospitals and exchange money, among other features. Pramod Varma, the chief architect of the program, believes that India will become "data rich" in a few years.

There are 25 million authentications using Aadhaar every day, and in June, the program reached 1.1 billion people enrolled -- about 85 percent of the population.

But India's digital ID program also comes with its own security issues. While a government official told the Supreme Court in India that Aadhaar was "the most foolproof method that has evolved," the Centre for Internet and Society discovered that 130 million people had their information leaked from four government websites.

Varma said they're working on creating an "electronic consent architecture" so data ownership goes back to the users, not the government.

"Data sharing must put the person right in the middle," Varma said. "You or I must own our own data."

For now, you'll have to stick to your passport and driver's license.

Corrections, June 21 at 7:37 a.m. and 2 p.m. PT: This article originally misstated Maja Vujinovic's title and her role at the ID2020 Summit. She is chief innovation officer at General Electric Digital and was a guest speaker at the ID2020 Summit.

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