Everyone Counts Initiative: our work on Digital ID & Exclusion

The Everyone Counts initiative was launched in the fall of 2020 with a firm commitment to a simple principle: the digital transformation of the state can only qualify as a success if everyone’s human rights are respected. Nowhere is this more urgent than in the context of so-called digital ID systems, which often form the basis for so-called ‘digital public infrastructure.’

Research, litigation, and broader advocacy on digital ID in countries like India and Kenya has already revealed the dangers of exclusion from digital ID for ethnic minority groups and for people living in poverty. However, a significant gap still exists between the magnitude of the human rights risks involved and the enthusiasm surrounding digital ID among many national and international policymakers. Despite their active promotion and use by governments, international organizations, and the private sector, in many cases these digital ID systems are leading to social exclusion and human rights violations, especially for the poorest and most marginalized.

As more and more governments turn to digital ID to form the ‘foundation’ for digital public infrastructure, there is a critical need for greater engagement from human rights actors. Therefore, the Everyone Counts initiative aims to engage in research, action, and network-building to address social exclusion and related human rights violations that are facilitated by digital ID systems and other government platforms.

If you are interested in learning more about our work on digital ID and digital public infrastructure, please contact Katelyn Cioffi (katelyn.cioffi@nyu.edu). 

Photograph taken by ISER and used with permission. 

RESEARCH

Together with partners, we undertake empirical human rights research that investigates how the introduction of digital ID systems may heighten the risk of harm, exacerbate social exclusion, and violate human rights. Our research is based on the notion that there is inherent and instrumental value in listening to and documenting how individuals experience digital systems, in order to understand how those experiences affect their rights and dignity.

The role of international organizations in promoting digital ID

In our 2022 report, “Paving a Digital Road to Hell? A Primer on the Role of the World Bank and Global Networks in Promoting Digital ID,” we sound the alarm about the dangers of national biometric digital ID systems. We identify the World Bank and its Identification for Development (ID4D) Initiative as playing a central role in manufacturing a new development consensus on digital ID. This consensus uses the language of development and human rights, but often aims to provide a form of economic identity that is delinked from legal status and human rights. These new systems are of urgent concern to all of those interested in safeguarding human rights, due to the growing evidence that such digital ID systems can cause serious harm.

In this primer, which draws on the work of many experts and activists working in related fields, we present a carefully researched account of what these new models of ‘economic identity’ look like. We also outline some of the key actors who have been involved in packaging and promoting this consensus. We conclude with some practical suggestions for the human rights ecosystem to consider in ensuring that human rights are safeguarded in the implementation of digital ID systems.

Press Release: The World Bank and co. may be paving a ‘Digital Road to Hell’ with support for dangerous digital ID

Full report: “Paving A Digital Road to Hell? A Primer on the Role of the World Bank and Global Networks in Promoting Digital ID

Mass exclusion from Uganda’s national digital ID system 

Our 2021 report, Chased Away and Left to Die, documents the wholesale exclusion of large swaths of the Ugandan population from its national digital ID system, Ndaga Muntu. Based on 7 months of research together with our Ugandan partners the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER) and Unwanted Witness, the report takes an in-depth look at the implications of exclusion for pregnant women and older persons attempting to access their rights to health and social protection. Since Ndaga Muntu is now required to access government and private services, including to access health care and social benefits, to vote, get a bank account, and obtain a mobile phone, exclusion from the national digital ID has become a life and death matter.

Below, you will find information on follow up advocacy, including strategic litigation, as well as further details about our report, a short documentary, and a press statement.

ACTION

Our presence at a leading university and law school underlines our commitment to high quality and cutting-edge research, but we are not in the business of knowledge accumulation purely for its own sake. We undertake targeted advocacy at the national, regional, and international level to ensure that digital ID systems are not used to exclude and violate human rights.

Supporting strategic litigation against Uganda’s digital ID system

On April 25, 2022, a coalition of civil society organizations in Uganda, including our partners the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights (ISER)Unwanted Witness (UW), alongside the Health Equity and Policy Initiative (HEAPI), filed a lawsuit—ISER & 2 Others v. Attorney General & Another—against the Government of Uganda. The applicants allege that the national digital ID, known as Ndaga Muntu, has become an exclusionary barrier that violates women’s rights to health and older persons’ rights to social security. This lawsuit draws on the extensive evidence documented in our 2021 report produced together with ISER and Unwanted Witness

On March 24, 2023, the High Court ruled to admit two applications to intervene as amicus curiae, one from Professor Philip Alston of NYU School of Law on the rights to health, social security, equality and non-discrimination, and the other from a coalition of civil society organizations including CIPESA, Article 19, and Access Now on the rights to privacy and freedom of expression.

A press release can be found here and a brief summary of the litigation along with Frequently Asked Questions can be downloaded here

Key Case Documents

Contributions to technical standard-setting processes & increasing accessibility of these processes

In April 2023, we responded to the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) request for comments on Version 4 of the Digital Identity Guidelines, Special Publication 800-63-4, in collaboration with the Institute for Law, Innovation & Technology (iLIT) at Temple University, Beasley School of Law. Our comments called on NIST to clarify and enhance key definitions relied on in the guidance, as well as to strengthen guidance on equity risks and highlight specific technical concerns about the management of digital identity, and particularly the use of biometrics. We also made practical suggestions for assessing, managing and monitoring equity risks throughout the digital identity cycle, and for strengthening guidance on access to appropriate remedies and redress. 

Full response: Submission to the United States National Institute of Standards and Technology in response to request for comments on the draft Digital Identity Guidelines

In June 2023, based on our experience of submitting comments to NIST, we published ‘Shaping Digital Standards: An Explainer and Recommendations on Technical Standard-Setting for Digital Identity Systems.’ This short document aims to summarize some of our comments, as well as to provide a resource for grassroots organizations, empowering them to engage with technical standards-setting bodies such as NIST and the International Standards Organization to raise human rights concerns related to digitalization. 

Further resources:

NETWORK-BUILDING

We create physical and virtual spaces for civil society organizations, as well as public and private actors, to come together to exchange information and stories, collaborate, and shape collective action on digital ID systems and exclusion of the poorest and most marginalized.

Workshop Series: How to Resist Exclusion from Digital ID in Africa

In early 2021, we organized a series of workshops in partnership with the UN Economic Commission for Africa and the Open Society Justice Initiative on the topic of digital ID and exclusion in Africa. The workshops invited human rights activists from twelve African countries to come together and discuss how the advent of digital ID systems is impacting their work and their communities. Participants came from civil society organizations working on a diverse range of issues—including health, education, social protection, and social justice—but found common ground in recognizing that digital ID and digital governance brings the potential to generate significant exclusion and human rights concerns. Each workshop in the series aimed to open space for discussion of personal experiences and viewpoints, opportunities to learn from external experts and other participants, and joint strategizing about what actions human rights activists can take to resist exclusion from digital ID systems for the most poor and marginalized.

Civil society coalition-building and global advocacy 

Our team plays an active role in global coalitions of civil society organizations, working together to ensure that all digital ID system are inclusive and human rights-centric. Together with our partners—which include both large, international NGOs as well as grassroots community groups—we work to host knowledge sharing sessions, to develop shared resources, and to bring collective concerns into international and regional policy spaces such as the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, and the International Monetary Fund & World Bank Group Annual Meetings.

Further resources:

MEDIA & EVENTS

Events & Documentaries
Blogs & Op-Eds
Selected media coverage:
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