Paving a Digital Road to Hell? 

A Primer on the Role of the World Bank and Global Networks in Promoting Digital ID

Around the world, governments are enthusiastically adopting digital identification systems. In this 2022 report, we show how global actors, led by the World Bank, are energetically promoting such systems. They proclaim that digital ID will provide an indispensable foundation for an equitable, inclusive future. But a specific model of digital ID is being promoted—and a growing body of evidence shows that this model of digital ID is linked to large-scale human rights violations. In this report, we argue that, despite undoubted good intentions, this model of digital ID is failing to live up to its promises and may in fact be causing severe harm. As international development actors continue to promote and support digital ID rollouts, there is an urgent need to consider the full implications of these systems and to ensure that digital ID realizes rather than violates human rights.

In this report, we provide a carefully researched primer, as well as a call to action with practical recommendations. We first compile evidence from around the world, providing a rigorous overview of the impacts that digital ID systems have had on human rights across different contexts. We show that the implementation of the dominant model of digital ID is increasingly causing severe and large-scale human rights violations, especially since such systems may exacerbate pre-existing forms of exclusion from public and private services. The use of new technologies may also lead to new forms of harm, including biometric exclusion, discrimination along new cleavages, and the many harms associated with surveillance capitalism. Meanwhile, the promised benefits of such systems have not been convincingly proven. This primer draws on the work of experts and activists working across multiple fields to identify critical concerns and evidentiary gaps within this new development consensus on digital ID.

The report points specifically to the World Bank and its Identification for Development (ID4D) Initiative as playing a central role in the rapid proliferation of a particular model of digital ID, one that is heavily inspired by the Aadhaar system in India. Under this approach to digital ID, the aim is to provide individuals with a ‘transactional’ identity, rather than to engage with questions surrounding legal status and rights. We argue that a driving force behind the widespread and rapid adoption of such systems is a powerful new development consensus, which holds that digital ID can contribute to inclusive and sustainable development—and is even a prerequisite for the realization of human rights. This consensus is packaged and promoted by key global actors like the World Bank, as well as by governments, foundations, vendors and consulting firms. It is contributing to the proliferation of digital ID around the world, all while insufficient attention is paid to risks and necessary safeguards.

The report concludes by arguing for a shift in policy discussions around digital ID, including the need to open new critical conversations around the “Identification for Development Agenda,” and encourage greater discourse around the role of human rights in a digital age. We issue a call to action for civil society actors and human rights stakeholders, with practical suggestions for those in the human rights ecosystem to consider. The report sets out key questions that civil society can ask of governments and international development institutions, and specific asks that can be made—including demanding that processes be slowed down so that sufficient care is taken, and increasing transparency surrounding discussions about digital ID systems, among others—to ensure that human rights are safeguarded in the implementation of digital ID systems.