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Coronavirus & Our Digital Identity

(Day 16 of the federal guidelines for Social Distancing)

“Identity will be the most valuable commodity for citizens in the future, and it will exist primarily online.” Eric Schmidt- Google Chairman

“Providing access to human rights through digital identities: because people matter.” Tykn Tech (advertising)

“I have very real concerns about the civil liberties implications of ultimately requiring every resident to submit themselves for compulsory fingerprinting or some other biometric test.” Patricia Hewitt

I remember back in the mid-’90s when I was working in Iran. I was managing a humanitarian needs project which provided assistance to Kurds who had fled from Halabja, Iraq. Their city had been bombed with a chemical weapon from Saddam Hussein’s forces, led by the Iraqi general who was known as “Chemical Ali.” 

In Iran, I was running a food distribution program for several Iranian administered refugee camps. On one particular evening, as my team and I were wrapping up our daily distribution of food, I noticed a woman I had seen before, but couldn’t remember where I’d seen her. Out of curiosity, after she left the administration tent, in order to jog my memory I followed her.  She returned to her tent, dropped off her food aid packages, and soon afterward stepped out of her tent wearing a completely different outfit. She went back to the administration tent for yet another round of aid distribution. Then I realized that I had seen this woman several times that day wearing different outfits, with different scarves and forms of padding to change her shape each time.

I soon discovered that she had five children and that her tent was filled with food from her distribution haul that day. Several families had left the camp so she collected their identity cards and their goods for her own family. While celebrating her entrepreneurial spirit and her devotion to caring for her children, it was quickly apparent that there was barely enough to go around the entire camp and while putting food in her own children’s mouths, she was keeping other children from getting what they otherwise might have received.

I remember thinking at the time that there is a need for a better identity system. If everyone all had a secure identity card that they had to maintain, then there would be a greater possibility that everybody would have equal access to aid. As it turns out, I was not the only one to have that same idea. Several large organizations such as the Red Cross and others have been working on a solution to this problem for years.

Having experienced this situation first-hand I can certainly understand the need for a solid means to identify people accurately in order to manage the distribution of assistance, health-care and general welfare. I also know that those working on solutions to these kinds of problems are typically well-intentioned people. However, as an experienced analyst and observer of global security matters, I can assure you that there are second and third-order effects that need to be deeply considered before implementing a program such as this in a world like the one in which we live. 

The global spread of the Coronavirus offers the ecosystem a “perfect storm” scenario. It provides a well-intentioned environment for a global identity system to be put in place. 

The situation gives those in powerful positions the ability to generously offer solutions that will make the proliferation of digital identification, and eventually biometric digital identities a natural choice. This is happening even today. 

The Coronavirus will most certainly speed up the deployment of a global identity system, opening up mankind to great possibilities for serving those in need. It will make health-care, on a grandly equitable scale, available, as well as create a system for globally administered aid such as we have never seen before.  In addition, there will be currently unseen second and third-order effects that will create an environment where some rather unseemly activities can exist as well. I will allow your imagination to take you there, based on your understanding of history and the future.


Let’s begin by looking at where digital identification began and by substantiating that these aspirations are real and are already in motion. First, the United Nations General Assembly (UN) of Member States in September 2015 adopted the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Target 16.9: “to provide legal identity for all, including birth registration” by 2030. This is a United Nations initiative designed to ensure that every human on the earth is recognized by a unique and secure identity. 

In an increasingly formalized, globalized, and digital world, people need secure and trusted ways to prove who they are, for both in-person and online transactions. Without recognition of their existence and credentials that allow them to reliably assert their identity, people are likely to face barriers when attempting to open a bank account, obtain a mobile phone, receive government assistance, register to vote, and more. I want to reiterate once again that this alone is a well-intentioned initiative.

To better understand the scale of the identification challenge, the World Bank developed the ID4D Global Dataset, which provided a first estimate of the number of people who lack official proof of identity—just under 1 billion as of 2018.  Overall,  it has been revealed that the gap in ID coverage is heavily concentrated in low-income countries (LICs), where an estimated 36 percent of adults7—more than 1 in 3—do not have an ID.

Within countries, those least likely to have a legal form of identification are women, lower-educated adults and those out of the workforce, adults at the bottom of the income distribution, and people living in rural areas. These gaps in coverage are highly intersectional— for example, while women are less likely to have an ID than men overall, the gender difference is largely concentrated among low educated and rural populations. 

How is all this being rolled out and initial implementation begun? As you can imagine this is a significant problem for the humanitarian assistance organizations. It is within these organizations that the solutions are being developed to overcome this identification inequity. The Netherlands Red Cross has been at the forefront of this vision. They developed a global initiative called, The “510” Initiative, with the number 510 representing the 510,000,000 square kilometers of surface land on the planet. They are currently creating global partnerships to solve this problem with technology.

One of the global initiatives implemented to deal with this phenomenon is the 121 Movement. It is designed to create safe digital identities so that every human on the earth can benefit from the equitable distribution of assistance and aid during times of trial and distress. They are primarily addressing the problem of the inefficiency of Cash-Based Aid (CBA) which is a growing form of assistance being provided around the world. 

You can imagine the difficulties that these organizations are facing concerning this initiative. They are promoting the use of digital devices for the storing of information. This presents a whole host of difficulties. Not everyone in the world has a digital device, much less one that is connected to the Internet. Literacy is also a significant obstacle as according to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the agency that monitors literacy around the world, there are 775 million people in the world who are illiterate, with another 152 million children set to follow in their footsteps, because they aren’t attending school.

The next generation of global Identification registration is just around the corner. According to Fredrik Sjöholm, “We’ve essentially created a number of artificial ways to link a person to their digital identity. But we need to make it much more seamless and convenient to authenticate a person digitally while adhering to increased regulation around KYC (know your customer), AML and PSD2. This is exactly where biometrics can help.”

Currently, there are multiple organizations that are developing authentication solutions that will combine different biometric modalities with data from our devices, which will deliver a whole level of both convenience and security, enabling passive and continuous authentication. So what will a person do if they don’t have the money to buy a device, but still need a personal identification?

Enter the next generation of biometric identification:

The ID2020 Alliance has launched a new digital identity program at its annual summit in New York, in collaboration with the government of Bangladesh, vaccine alliance Gavi, and new partners in government, academia, and humanitarian relief. A British-based company called, SIMprints says that “Simprints’ mission is to transform the way the world fights global poverty, building technology to radically increase transparency and effectiveness in global development and ensuring that every vaccine, every dollar, every public good reaches the people who need them most.”

There is a growing transformation taking place where the need for identification and the need for security are beginning to meld into one technology. This is where we are beginning to see the birth of biometric digital identities as a global phenomenon that will soon span the entire world. According to calculations made by Sir Francis Galton (Darwin’s cousin), the probability of finding two similar fingerprints is one in 64 billion even with identical twins (homozygotes).

Simprints  is partnering with Gavi and NEC, leveraging biometrics to help reach millions of the most vulnerable children worldwide with life-saving vaccinations,” says Simprints CEO and Co-founder, Toby Norman. This is what will need to be referred to as first-generation biometric ID technology. The sky is the limit as to how other forms of biometrics can be innovated to house our identification data. If you are interested in knowing more about biometry or biometrics click here for a simple definition.

Where is the identification data housed and who has access to it? Few seem willing to point out that when biometric data is collected, even with consent, that the information/data is being stored somewhere. This point will be a major obstacle to the next generation of biometric identity data.

What’s next?  According to Hannes Sjöblad, about 3,000 people in Sweden have inserted a microchip — which is as tiny as a grain of rice — under their skin over the past three years, allowing them to store their personal identification data as well as solutions for carrying out simple tasks throughout their days. Insertable biometric ID solutions are perhaps the future of global identity identification schemes. 


It is important that all of us are aware of the technologies that are emerging in many fields as advances are accelerating at rates faster than our abilities as humans to adapt to the changes. 

There are many opinions that exist concerning the proliferation of data, especially personal identification data. Data once harvested can never be put back in the bottle. I don’t doubt that there is a need to help people receive equitable healthcare and welfare assistance globally. I just know that when a hundred new technologies emerge for the good, there are a thousand ways that the same technology can be used for nefarious purposes. I believe that these digital identification technologies have the potential to be most disruptive and that the second and third-order effects could have a staggeringly destructive effect on entire communities and nations.

As Christians who are increasingly coming under fire globally, the collection of religious data, gathered in most Muslim countries, can be used to serve as a weapon against entire swaths of communities. It can be used to track and pursue individuals who do not fit within social norms.

Once again, the need to build global infrastructure for providing equitable healthcare for the world’s vulnerable is undeniable. Let’s consider, however, how to do this so that it does not create a secondary or tertiary problem. 


Watch closely as the world increasingly comes to terms with this kind of global virus. There will be “haves;” there will be “have-nots.” It is a critical variable that we as Christians are concerned about the vulnerable in the world. We need to resist the temptation to seclude ourselves and to ignore the plight of the global poor, due to our fears.

Interact with your local government, state legislature and national elected officials. I read an article in the Economist this past week. It said, “The state must act decisively. But history suggests that the state does not give up all the ground it takes during crises. Today that has implications not just for the economy, but also for the surveillance of individuals.” -Economist 3/26/2020  We need to take that counsel seriously. What we give up today in the midst of the Coronavirus may never be given back.

The follow-up.

We need to get digital ID right…

The current coronavirus has caused a full breakdown in Iran, with an unknown death toll, infected leaders, and massive burial pits visible from space…

The feed-back.

For your comments or questions about any of our digests please feel free to write to me at:


World Bank. 2019. Global ID Coverage, Barriers, and Use by the Numbers: An In-Depth Look at the 2017 ID4D-Findex Survey, Washington, DC: World Bank License: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 IGO (CC BY 3.0 IGO)

ID4D Global Dataset. 2018, available at

Demystifying Digital Identity…

Trends in Digital Identities..

Biometrics and digital identity…

Pioneering Informed Consent…

© 2019 • More Than Meets