Time to make digital identity a nationwide reality
In this digital age, we frequently perform various transactions online. While doing so, how are we identifying ourselves, or verifying that we are the authorised persons for said transactions?When we request for any service through a government web portal, how do we prove ourselves as legal citizens? If we need to justify purpose while purchasing a product online, how do we do that? Every interaction we perform online requires trust and safety. It needs to be ensured that individuals can interact safely online while concurrently blocking harmful activities by perpetrators.
At present, while availing most of the online services in Bangladesh, we use password-based single sign-in or multi-factor authentication schemes. For two-factor authentication, an extra step of verification is performed by sending an SMS or a call to the registered mobile phone numbers. However, these identification processes may become inadequate soon to deal with rapidly increasing fraud and security threats in cyberspace. That is where cutting-edge digital identification solutions come into play.
As digital economies keep expanding, the use of digital identification has increased globally. According to a report by MarketsandMarkets, the global market of identity verification is expected to grow from USD 8.6 billion in 2021 to USD 18.6 billion by 2026. While North America currently holds the largest share of this market, the Asia Pacific region will experience the most growth. Another recent study by Juniper indicated a 467 percent increase in the usage of digital identity between 2021 and 2025.
The use of the digital versions of documents such as national ID cards, passports, government-issued ID cards, etc for online transactions grew even more because of the Covid-19 pandemic. There are several ways of verifying someone's identity digitally—such as through biometrics, which enables automated recognition of individuals through certain physiological features like facial image, fingerprint, iris scanning, voice scanning, etc. Another emerging technology for digital identification is blockchain, which uses distributed ledger databases that are accessible via a highly secured cryptographic channel. By dint of its unique benefits—e.g. security, trust and transparency—blockchain is expected to facilitate revolutionary transformation for identity management. For instance, in Jordan's Azraq refugee camp, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has been using blockchain and biometrics to help Syrian refugees purchase groceries using a voucher system. Blockchain-based identification is currently being deployed in the refugee camps of Kenya as well. These instances are proof that inclusive digital IDs can significantly empower poor and vulnerable people as well.
Digitalising identification in Bangladesh
Digital identification has been on the agenda of the Bangladesh government's endeavours for Digital Bangladesh. In December 2015, Dhaka hosted the "Government Discussion Forum on Electronic Identity," Asia's largest meeting of government and private agencies regarding electronic ID. In December 2019, Bangladesh launched a digital identity programme with ID2020 Alliance, a global consortium aiming to maximise adoption and benefits of digital identity. Consequently, in April 2021, an RFP for healthcare digital ID was issued by Bangladesh government in partnership with ID2020 and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. This programme aims to provide biometric-linked digital IDs to infants when they receive routine immunisations. Another project was announced by the Bangladesh government in June 2021, which will provide unique digital IDs to students of Classes 6-12 via integrated education information management system. In September 2021, the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) announced that it was planning to collect demographic and biometric data of all citizens, which will be stored in the National Population Register (NPR), and each citizen would be assigned a 16-digit digital identification number.
Challenges and potentials
Several experts and forums agree that digital identity can be a game-changer in a country like Bangladesh. It can help ensure basic services for the marginalised communities as the country continually deals with challenges such as seasonal migration, natural disasters, refugee crisis, etc. We can take inspiration from the successful deployment of digital identification in other countries, particularly in different parts of Africa.
Simultaneously, we need to address the relevant challenges. So far in Bangladesh, we have observed different endeavours for digital identification in different domains, such as education and healthcare. A coherent framework and regulations will better ensure sustainable implementation of digital ID solutions across various domains. However, a consolidated framework or regulation should not restrict the diversity in technical solutions. We have a highly promising ICT industry that made an annual export of over USD 1 billion in 2019. While we need the experience and expertise of foreign companies to roll out digital IDs, we also need to keep promoting and encouraging innovative solutions locally.
For any new technology, mass-level adoption is always a challenge. While people in North America or Europe are well-habituated to validate their identities to avail certain services or products, this is still a novel concept for many in Bangladesh. However, the adoption will be quite faster for our tech-enthusiast younger generations.
Building trust and confidence among people is also very important. Recently, some digital identity initiatives for Rohingya refugees raised controversy, with allegations that these data were collected from the refugees and later shared with the Myanmar government without their informed consent. So, following basic ethical guidelines is extremely crucial.
And there always remains the risk of data vulnerability due to technological as well as human glitches. Recently, we learnt of several incidents where confidential data from the NID database were leaked by dishonest officials. This, again, demonstrates the need for adequate protection and security measures to safeguard identity data.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aim to provide legal identity for every person in the world by the year 2030. Digital identity will be a major catalyst to achieve that goal. It can play a pivotal role in a developing country like Bangladesh, which is looking towards a prosperous digital future. Therefore, it is high time for us to properly utilise the potential of digital identification.
Azfar Adib is a senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) and a PhD student in Concordia University, Canada.