Welcoming Simprints to the ID2020 Alliance

The ID2020 Alliance is thrilled to welcome our newest partner organization, Simprints.

Simprints is a nonprofit biometrics company that is building an affordable, secure, rugged, open-source fingerprint system that works in the world’s toughest settings. Co-founded in 2013 by Alexandra Grigore, Dan Storisteanu, Tristram Norman, and Toby Norman, Simprints technology empowers mobile tools used by researchers, NGOs and governments around the world.

ID2020’s Emily Rutland and Lucy Daugherty recently spoke with Simprints COO Sebastian Manhart about his organization, their mission, and why they joined ID2020.

Tell me a little about Simprints’ mission, and why you think this mission is important.

Broadly speaking, our mission is to make international organizations and actors more effective in their work. Breaking the identification bottleneck is a key lever to achieving this mission. In this sense, there’s huge alignment and overlap between our mission and what ID2020 is trying to do. We’ve decided that technology can have a huge multiplier effect, especially when it comes to digital identity.

The fundamental value of identity is something we know all too well. Without identity, individuals have no access to basic services. Identity is the entry point. And organizations around the world are really struggling to be effective as a result of lacking this.

For us, we didn’t start out with the mission to build biometric technology. Biometrics is something that we’ve become passionate about, but we see it as a means to an end. What we’re really passionate about is solving a big social problem. And as such, we believe that building technology for identity — specifically, that is built for purpose, that works in frontline contexts, that is deployed responsibly, and that is interoperable with existing systems, can play a huge part.

What are the values that drive Simprints? How do those values influence your approach?

We lay out our values on our website, but what’s really important is what they represent. The most important one is our relentless commitment to impact — that’s the reason we’re all here. We are a nonprofit, heavily impact-focused company — the only nonprofit biometrics company that we’re aware of. We fundamentally believe in this relentless commitment to impact, and that drives all that we do.

Another thing that really defines us is our rigorous academic approach to development — we call it “RAF Certified” or “Robust as Fudge”. We don’t just trust things that people say, we test them. We gather data, we benchmark, we rigorously test. When we started out, we didn’t even think that we would build our own technology. We took off-the-shelf technology that claimed to have extremely high accuracy rates in the field, and we tested it for a year and a half. We collected 135,000 really damaged fingerprints across four countries, and we then ran the analysis, because we didn’t trust the marketing materials. And the analysis that we’ve published since shows that leading technologies developed for Western contexts — surprise, surprise — didn’t work within difficult populations or difficult environmental conditions.

The last value I really want to stress is around integrity. The way we frame it on our website is “confront the grey” — we speak out when our ethical compass is challenged. We’re all trying to do good, that’s why we’re all here. But if we can’t ensure that we won’t do harm, there’s no point in starting to do good. So when it comes to the collection of millions of biometrics, of highly sensitive records of some of the most vulnerable populations on the planet — if we can’t guarantee that privacy is front and center of that approach, we shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

Since you began working on digital identity, what has been your biggest “Aha!” moment?

Privacy.

I was at an identity conference in Rwanda in 2016. And it was a punch-in-the-stomach moment for me, because I was fairly new to this space, and we were at this conference, which brings together all major biometrics companies in the world, plus policy makers from all across Sub-Saharan Africa, the World Bank, and so on.

The day before the conference, Toby, our CEO, and I went to visit the genocide memorial just outside Kigali, and we were shown around by someone whose entire family was killed in the genocide. And he showed us the ID cards that were used. He showed us how the words Hutu or Tutsi were literally just crossed out, and that had been used as proof for somebody, that they were essentially eliminating the right person. It was an awful reminder of what identity can lead to if misappropriated.

The next day — and here’s my aha moment — I went to the conference, and privacy was not mentioned once by any of the biometric vendors. Not once. It was really, really shocking. There was some talk about data security, but there was absolutely nothing around privacy. That was my real aha moment, having this huge contrast between the being in Rwanda and the consequences of what can happen with ID, and the reality of how the biggest players in our industry are operating. I don’t want to generalize, but on the whole, that lack of discussion around privacy was something I found quite shocking.

Why was it important for you to join the ID2020 Alliance?

There’s just a natural mutual interest. We have a couple of things that are fundamentally aligned. One is a focus on functional ID systems. We are all for foundational ID systems (with the right privacy standards in place and built for purpose), but the reality is that there’s still a need for functional identities. If you’re Mercy Corps distributing cash in northeastern Nigeria in a refugee camp, you can’t wait for the Nigerian government to issue IDs that you can use. So I think the focus on functional ID systems is really important, and something that we share.

Another important mutual interest is around advocacy. We are doing a lot of work within our own projects, we’re trying to reach millions of people, and we’re going to scale. But in the grand scheme of things globally, that’s still a minor fraction of the people affected by these systems. So the focus on advocacy that ID2020 has aligns entirely with our own focus on using advocacy to multiply the effects of positive initiatives.

The final one is around partnerships. We realized very early on that we had to forge partnerships, especially as a team of (now) 30 people trying to tackle a global problem that affects 1.1 billion people. And that’s the foundation of how ID2020 is run — bringing together partners that can really add value and participate in knowledge sharing and joint initiatives.

How do you see Simprints furthering the mission of the ID2020 Alliance, and how do you hope Simprints will evolve through this partnership?

I really hope that we can bring a perspective that’s slightly different than some of the current partners. What ID2020 has done terrifically to date is bring on board a lot of the big players that are really needed to create systemic change. What Simprints can add is a really practical, high-integrity perspective on what it means to implement biometric identification systems in international development, across sectors. Again, we have this relentless commitment to impact, and I hope that we can bring innovative ideas around the accuracy of technology, interoperability of systems, and applied privacy standards to the Alliance in a way that might be refreshing and useful.

And as a final note, we hope to evolve through this partnership. We hope that ID2020 can act as a channel and as a multiplier for our own mission. We really want to shape our sectors, not just our projects. Being able to communicate our stance on privacy in a practical way — in a way that people understand and value and can implement — would be a huge achievement for Simprints as a whole. That’s really something I look forward to engaging with ID2020 and the Alliance partners on, and seeing how that might help us foster our mission as well.

(Please note, this interview was edited for clarity and length)

Information on ID2020’s pilot solicitation and evaluation processes — including our pilot proposal application portal — can be found here. If you have an idea for a digital identity pilot project, we’d love to hear from you.