For some people, not being able to prove who you are can be a matter of life or death

Oct 22, 2018 · 6 min read

Here’s a scenario many of you are likely to be familiar with.

You decide to buy yourself a new mobile phone, so pop down to your friendly mobile phone shop in downtown Washington DC for a browse. After deciding you can’t stretch to over $1,500 for the latest iPhone you plump for a cheaper Android device. The friendly shop assistant asks you for a combination of photo ID, proof of your bank details (and likely your social security number) and a utility bill to confirm your address. Being the organised type you spent a few hours the day before rummaging around getting these things together, so you’re all prepared. You pay your money, take your phone, and walk out of the shop.

For most people, proving who they are is relatively straightforward even if it is a generally painful process pulling all those bits of paper together. We take it for granted that we can prove who we are when we need to, but today that’s not the case for over a billion people in other parts of the world.

Substitute mobile phone for education, financial services, healthcare or social services for you and your family, and substitute Washington DC for rural Uganda, and not being able to prove who you are can have serious consequences. Identity, in particular digital identity, has become big business over recent years as fraud and hacking events go up, and consumers worry about the security of their data. And while we worry about identity theft in many advanced economies, the global development community has turned its attention to those who don’t have an identity to steal at all. Incredibly, 1 in 7 people on the planet don’t officially exist — something well worth addressing.

In recognition of the scale of the problem identity was included within the Social Development Goals (SDGs). SDG 16.9 commits the sector to, by 2030, providing legal identity for all, including free birth registrations. The latter part of the commitment is key. Around the world 250 million children under five didn’t have their birth registered, and in Sub Saharan Africa alone over 50% of children remain unregistered by their 5th birthday. If the tap feeding this unregistered birth epidemic can be turned off, then we can at least stop the problem getting any bigger.

Not having something as straightforward as a birth certificate can have serious consequences. Thirty-two countries in Sub-Saharan Africa require a birth certificate to access education, sixteen require one to access social support, and six to access healthcare. In Indonesia a birth certificate is the only form of legal identity, yet 58% of the poorest children don’t have their births registered. As they get older, how do they claim rights to things like land, inheritance and nationality?

But providing people with a way of proving who they are is only half of the problem. Ensuring that the six billion of us with some form of identity find them simple to use, and useful, is critical, particularly as more and more of us live out more and more of our lives online. How we create good operational digital ID is one of the things we’re committed to tackling at Yoti.

As a company we are guided by seven founding principles, one of which is to make Yoti available to anyone. Our leading product is a smartphone app which allows you to create your own digital identity which lives on your phone, with details verified by scanning official documents such as driving licences and passports. You can then share elements of that identity online, or in person, with whoever you transact with, giving you full control over what you share, how much you share, and who with.

Of course, not everyone has a smartphone, not everyone can get online, and not everyone has a government-issued passport or driving licence. This is particularly true for those living in many emerging markets, or living in last-mile or near last-mile environments. To address the balance we recently undertook some research in Africa and South East Asia to better understand what non-profits working in these places might need from an identity solution, with an assumption that smartphones, connectivity and official identity documents would be in short, even non-existent, supply. This research lead to a number of useful insights and opportunities for a digital identity solution to support development efforts in places where most existing digital identity solutions do not work. Key takeaways included

  • Identification is a unique roadblock to a large number of desirable outcomes. The absence of effective and secure methods for proving identity presents a challenge across a range of sectoral and programmatic outcomes.
  • Among programme specialists with a range of technical expertise, biometrics are seen as a potentially important area in which identification technology could be well- used.
  • Privacy is a major concern — in practical terms, both participants and organisations would be concerned about the potential of identification technology to increase their vulnerability through abuse or fraud, and so privacy is a key requirement.
  • Most organisations showed interest in a solution that could help them in their work but raised concerns about technical capacity both internally and within the government frameworks (where applicable).
  • The vast majority of identity needs at the local NGO level are straightforward and simple, and providing an easy-to-use, technically-light solution to them has the potential to unlock considerable social impact potential.

The Social Impact Team at Yoti are now leading on the development of an open source, offline version of a product called Yoti Key which will soon be commercially available. Yoti Key is a secure, encrypted NFC-enabled tag which will allow individuals to share aspects of their identity when they interact with a service — a hospital, food programme, refugee registration programme, cash giving initiative and so on. By tapping their key on a reader, much in the same way we do when we make a payment in a shop by tapping our card on a terminal, individual identity credentials can be displayed on a tablet to help confirm who the person is.

The beauty for NGOs working in last-mile environments, or with constituents living in areas without Internet access, or without their own smartphone, is that it enables them to digitally and more efficiently manage interactions with their services, often for the first time. Knowing that the person you’re giving an injection to today, for example, is the same person you gave an injection to last week is critical.

If this sounds like something you’d be interested in piloting when the product is available in a few months time then we’d love to hear from you. We’re open to pilots anywhere, solving any kind of social or environmental problem, and we will provide Keys and technical support for free.

Crucially, the software will also be open source, allowing anyone anywhere to build on the back of the base platform we provide. We’re also looking to sign up a small group of potential users to help us develop the product, and carry out early evaluations. If any of this sounds of interest, we’d love to hear from you. You can also find out more about our wider Social Impact efforts here.