Public-private cooperation to build digital identity systems

build digital identity


Today, the World Bank, Secure Identity Alliance, and GSMA have launched a joint white paper, “Digital Identity: Towards Shared Principles for Public and Private Sector Cooperation”.

Building on an existing body of research on digital identity for sustainable development, this paper takes a first step in framing key issues, benefits and challenges for public-private cooperation to build digital identity systems. It highlights the primary dividends and risks of digital identity ecosystems, describes the roles and responsibilities of key stakeholders, and discusses emerging models of identity systems and partnerships. In addition, it suggests some common themes and principles that stakeholders should consider in order to ensure that digital identity systems are inclusive, trustworthy and sustainable. We hope that it serves as a basis for future analytical work in this important area.


Individuals, governments and private sector companies share a common interest in having trustworthy systems that enable end-user identity verification. Public sector agencies need inclusive and secure identity systems to administer government programs and delivery of services, including elections, social transfers, tax collection and border security. Similarly, private firms often rely on government-issued identification (e.g., birth certificates and national IDs) to verify the identity of their users and build their own identity systems to support client services. For the end-user, it is all about security of personal data and timely and efficient access to services and benefits.


Digital identity is a potential tool for countries to eliminate the inefficiencies and insecurities of paper-based identity systems. Demand is growing for secure online and mobile transactions—including eGovernment and eCommerce—and there is also a need for better methods of delivering services to poor and disenfranchised groups. In this way, digital identity can help countries close the identity gap of the 1.5 billion people who lack reliable forms of official identification and meet one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (#16.9, which calls for “a legal identity for all, including birth registration” by 2030.


Given this potential and common interest, it is no surprise that we have begun to see partnerships between governments and private companies to strengthen digital identity systems in a number of countries. Yet despite those partnerships and the growing importance of secure identity verification, more analysis and research is required to explore the nature, benefits and risks of different models of cooperation and types of digital identity ecosystems.


A key objective of the new paper is to further the dialogue around these issues with principal actors from a variety of sectors. The result was a successful consultative process that began at the Mobile World Congress 2016. This process brought together multiple stakeholders from the mobile industry, the smart card and biometrics industry, government and the development community. A dialogue between the public and private sector was encouraged to promote the implementation of sustainable digital identity schemes—an important discussion that will continue as more stakeholders become involved in drafting and adopting shared principles for identity.


What is clear from the discussions is that the challenge in providing a useful, secure digital identity that enables life-enhancing services and meets the needs of government, private sector—and most importantly, citizens—will require new models of work and cooperation. It will require significant decisions, investment, a long-term vision and openness and trust between parties.


There are big choices to make. Some will be informed by design questions such as “what existing ID architecture can we build upon?” or “what kinds of technology are most ubiquitous and cost-effective?” Others, such as “how can we protect trust and build privacy in these systems?” or “what will drive people to demand a digital ID and see its value?” will require considering how to develop the broader eco-system around the ID architecture itself.


As part of the launch of this paper, the GSMA, SIA and World Bank will convene representatives from the private and public sectors at this week’s Mobile 360 Tanzania Conference to share key findings and offer an opportunity to debate and discuss ways forward. Providing an opportunity for a variety of stakeholders to give input into the draft principles for digital identity will help ensure that they reflect broad policy needs as well as on-the-ground experience.


There is no doubt that the digital identity landscape will continue to evolve at a rapid rate as developing countries move towards increasingly digitized economies and societies. Digital identity that is sustainable, accessible and trusted will be fundamental to ensure that everyone is able to reap the benefits that this technology offers.


Click here to read more about the World Bank’s work on identification for development (ID4D).