There is a generalised assumption that certain kinds of digital identity programmes empower users, especially those in marginalised populations, by giving them legal identification and access to public services. Digital identity programmes can provide some of the same benefits to users as conventional identity and can reap the benefits of scalability of technology. However, the scalability of digital identity programmes also makes their harms scalable. It is far from being proven that most digital identity programmes have brought additional benefits to users, without placing them at risk.
Current justifications for these programmes are often theoretical, and programmes are deployed without sufficient supportive evidence of the promised benefits. On the other hand, the harms that are suffered by individuals through badly designed and implemented digital identity programmes are real and in many cases, irreparable. Unfortunately, marginalised populations suffer the greatest harm. These digital identity programmes are all too often designed and implemented without a recognition of regional and local realities and without the consultation of key stakeholders including the most vulnerable. If many developed countries have questioned and opposed similar digital identity programmes, why are they being routinely deployed in the developing world?
Human agency and choice form the foundation of human dignity. Humans being enrolled in any programme have a basic human right to understand the system and its justification and participate in designing its structure and implementation. Some basic questions on the objectives, need, and benefits of these digital identity programmes must be answered before pursuing the what, the how, the when, and the who of digital identity.