A Right to Exist: Using Technology to Create Better ID Systems

Steven Malby of the Commonwealth Secretariat explores the challenges in bringing legal identity to the more than 1 billion people lacking recognition.

AccessTimeIconMay 28, 2016 at 2:20 p.m. UTC
Updated Mar 6, 2023 at 2:59 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconMay 28, 2016 at 2:20 p.m. UTCUpdated Mar 6, 2023 at 2:59 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconMay 28, 2016 at 2:20 p.m. UTCUpdated Mar 6, 2023 at 2:59 p.m. UTC

Steven Malby is head of the Law Development Section of the Rule of Law Division for the Commonwealth Secretariat, the executive arm of the Commonwealth of Nations intergovernmental organisation.

In this opinion piece, Malby explores the challenges in bringing legal identity to the more than 1 billion people who lack recognition from governments worldwide and the steps taken thus far to find a solution.

Out of more than 7 billion people in the world, 1.5 billion officially do not exist. That is, they do not have a form of identity that is legally recognised by governments.

Sadly, it is all too easy not to exist. Simply being born as a member of a nomadic group in a remote rural area where birth registration is sporadic may suffice. Armed conflict, persecution or forced displacement can take away everything, including invaluable legal documentation.

Criminal groups engaged in trafficking in persons or smuggling of migrants forcibly take passports from victims, cementing the process of dehumanization and commodification.

Without legal identity, people cannot access basic health or education services. They cannot open a bank account, rent or buy property, get a job or vote. Those fleeing war or persecution cannot prove their origin. Identity is critical to reuniting displaced children with parents and family.

In the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, Goal 16 on peace, justice and strong institutions, recognizes the right of all to legal identity, including birth registration.

And yet, ‘legal identity’ is a complex and nuanced concept. It both empowers and invokes concern over privacy and the risk of discrimination. Legal identity can be evidenced in multiple ways: through a birth certificate, a passport, or a national identity card, all used at different times, for different purposes, and in different combinations.

Across the Commonwealth, a wide range of birth registration, citizenship and even digital identity laws govern legal identity systems.

Identity systems need to provide an official identity for the six-year-old girl in rural Africa whose birth was never registered, has never attended school and been displaced across borders by conflict. Those systems need to do so whilst protecting her right to privacy, and to process information held about her in a way that is secure and reveals only what is necessary to those who need to know.

Delivering legal identity for 1.5 billion people by 2030 is an immense undertaking. It requires new approaches and ways of thinking.

This month, the Commonwealth Secretariat joined forces in a unique summit of private sector enterprises, non-governmental organisations and states at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, to explore ways in which emerging technologies could contribute to this target.

The summit, entitled ‘ID2020,’ explored the realities of life without identity. It considered ways in which digital identity systems based on ‘blockchain’ technology could support legal identity for all, including through public-private partnerships. The Secretariat shared experience of legal identity laws from across the Commonwealth, and discussed the needs of member countries with emerging technology firms.

The ID2020 summit will be held every year to provide a platform for action and dialogue between technology innovators, states and international organisations. As a first step in realising the target of legal identity for all, Commonwealth Senior Officials of Law Ministries will review Commonwealth laws on legal and digital identity at their forthcoming meeting in October 2016.

The Commonwealth Secretariat is also leading the way in testing digital identity systems through its work on development of a blockchain-based app for the Commonwealth network of criminal justice contact points.

ID2020 represents not only a significant step forward towards realisation of Sustainable Development Goal 16, but also Goal 17, on revitalizing the global partnership for sustainable development.

The Commonwealth Secretariat will play its full role, supporting and partnering with member countries, and the global community, to promote the rule of law and ensure for all a right to exist.

Image via Shutterstock

Learn more about Consensus 2024, CoinDesk's longest-running and most influential event that brings together all sides of crypto, blockchain and Web3. Head to consensus.coindesk.com to register and buy your pass now.


Please note that our privacy policy, terms of use, cookies, and do not sell my personal information has been updated.

CoinDesk is an award-winning media outlet that covers the cryptocurrency industry. Its journalists abide by a strict set of editorial policies. In November 2023, CoinDesk was acquired by the Bullish group, owner of Bullish, a regulated, digital assets exchange. The Bullish group is majority-owned by Block.one; both companies have interests in a variety of blockchain and digital asset businesses and significant holdings of digital assets, including bitcoin. CoinDesk operates as an independent subsidiary with an editorial committee to protect journalistic independence. CoinDesk offers all employees above a certain salary threshold, including journalists, stock options in the Bullish group as part of their compensation.