Conference Summary (Brief)

ThE following is a synthesis of key points made in the panel sessions at the Harvard FXB Center’s 21st Century National Identification conference (November 2015). A fuller summary can be found here.

PANEL 1: Foundations of National Identification Systems: Political, legal and civil frameworks

The number of national identification programs has been increasing over the past decade. This and the fact that millions today are fleeing persecution and hostility means that questions of legal identity, access to a nationality, and documentary proof of identity could not be more urgent.


Alan Gelb

Overview: Global status of identification systems, including current trends and common challenges and risks. Emphasized how identification systems could contribute to inclusive development, not whether such systems were necessary.

  • ID drivers: Security concerns post 9/11, growth in e-services, increase in multiparty elections, migration, increased biometrics.
  • Challenges: Fragmented ID systems, data misuse, discrimination, reduced civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS) investment.
  • Strong need for cooperation between donors/development partners to strengthen identity systems, particularly in light of SDG target #16.9.

Mia Harbitz

Overview: Birth registration. Essential to consider how identification systems can contribute to CRVS systems.

  • Advances in identification technology not been matched by adjustment of policies relating to legal identity and personal identification.
  • Unique personal number from birth can be used to facilitate interoperability between databases.
  • Communication among stakeholders essential to ensure a coordinated approach to identification.

Tarik Malik

Overview: How national identification systems can be used to strengthen empowerment, service delivery, and state capacity. Review of National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), Pakistan’s identification system.

  • No census in Pakistan had been conducted for 17 years; birth registration very low when NADRA implemented.
  • NADRA used for multiple functions: improving voter registration, identifying tax evaders, strengthening branchless banking, coordinating service delivery after floods.

Bronwen Manby

Overview: Without appropriate legal protections, identification systems could lend to increased statelessness. Technological solutions must be connected to underlying legal frameworks. Focused on African context.

  • National ID cards increasingly common in Africa; will be compulsory for many countries in West Africa.
  • Populations at risk of statelessness include migrants, cross-border populations, and vulnerable children. They are often without IDs and are denied the opportunity to receive proof of identity by destination states.
  • Examples from Cote D’Ivoire, Nigeria, and Mauritania illustrate how identification systems can both define and deny legal identity and

PANEL 2: Global perspectives on ID numbers and ID cards

National ID systems can be designed in many ways, each with its own pros, cons, and implementation considerations.


Robert Palacios

Overview: Data and examples from World Bank Identification for Development (ID4D) initiative. Focus on Africa.

  • Context matters. Limited infrastructure, poor registration mechanisms, competing role of electoral bodies in ID provision, and lack of personal data protection legislation all affect the design of ID systems.
  • Birth and death registration systems should be a foundational step in building and harmonizing ID systems.
  • Strong need for minimum, appropriate standards for personal data protection.

Ajay Bhushan Pandey

Overview: Design and implementation of India’s Aadhaar, the world’s largest biometric identification system.

  • Aadhaar a response to underdocumentation and related lack of access to services, as well as government service delivery leakage.
  • Designed to be highly scalable, data protective, and vendor neutral, and to incorporate biometrics and include marginalized populations.
  • Currently used to open bank accounts, send payments directly to bank accounts; also used by a range of national and state-level social welfare schemes that provide cooking gas, pensions, and cash transfers.
  • Legal context: 12 petitions filed in Supreme Court against Aadhaar largely due to concerns about privacy and legal status. One petition filed by Aadhaar administrators asks Supreme Court to keep biometric information from being shared with Central Bureau of Investigation.

Ian Watson

Overview: The uses and design of Kennitala, Iceland’s 10-digit identification system.

  • Iceland’s national identification numbers are public and listed in an open database. This may be more secure than systems where the number is kept private or even used as an authenticator.
  • Iceland has “desacralized” the use of the national identification number and people use it unhesitatingly as a kind of alternative name.
  • Government management of the Icelandic ID number system amounts to the creation of a public good.

Edgar Whitley

Overview: Discussed the UK’s failed biometric national identity card scheme and its current “Verify” service.

  • London School of Economics report “The Identity Project” criticized scheme as “too complex, technically unsafe, overly prescriptive and lack a foundation of public trust and confidence.”
  • Current “Verify” service has federated structure, uses only private sector identity providers, and is focused on ensuring privacy. A set of Identity Assurance Principles developed that focus on citizens’ needs.
  • Federated ID systems (e.g., Austria), provide a privacy-driven approach. Data merging between agencies should be done through judicial process.

PANEL 3: Government data – How it is formulated, combined and used

What type of individual and aggregate data about citizens can be generated by national ID systems through database linkage? What if any impact does scaling up such systems have on research and data collection?


Deborah Rose

Overview: Database structure and the characteristics of effective ID systems.

  • Explained basic data file structure, and showed how a national ID number can facilitate storing different kinds of data in separate files, to be combined only as needed.
  • Advocates assignment of both a National Identification number and birth registration for newborns. For adults, assign a National ID to all adult residents, including immigrants, and develop a birth certificate if absent, as done by the Aadhaar program in India.
  • Recommended ID Number Formats: For new systems, generate a unique 12-digit random number for each person. For legacy systems with embedded personally identifiable information, use four-digit birth year in the birth date, and do not include any code for sex in the ID Number.

Ryan Seals

Overview: An epidemiological research project using Denmark’s health and occupation databases and government civil registry.

  • Denmark’s 10-digit personal enables linkage of the health and economic data of those affected by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) with data of similar but unaffected residents, allowing use of rich, high quality data.
  • Datasets kept by different registries. Statistics Denmark maintains search database that can link data from the various registries; access to datasets available to pre-approved research groups in Denmark.

Jo Anne Barnhart

Overview: The former SSA commissioner discussed her experiences at the Social Security Administration.

  • Unique identifiers facilitate inter-governmental communication government-program evaluation.
  • Changing technology can render such systems obsolete over time, reducing usefulness of such data and requiring expensive updates.
  • Perform cost-benefit analyses before expanding existing data collection programs.

PANEL 4: Uses of Local and National Identification Systems: Financial inclusion, benefits and services, health insurance and development

A more in-depth look at the ways national IDs enable the delivery basic services as well the delivery of services in extreme circumstances, such as war or natural disasters; how cities have created municipal IDs to compensate for the lack of a National ID for undocumented immigrants and others.

Mariana Dahan

Overview: On the World Bank’s Identification for Development working group.

  • ID4D provided technical assistance to develop digital ID systems in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
  • Emphasis should be placed on efficient, effective donor coordination.

Tilman Ehrbeck

Overview: An industry user’s perspective on unique ID systems.

  • Half the world is excluded from the financial sector: 40% without bank account, 60% without formal jobs.
  • ID systems should be a foundation for inclusion; can serve as platform for a broader technology “stack” that enables a range of services.
  • Mobile phone improves access to bank accounts, reduce banking costs.

John DeStefano

Overview: Former mayor of New Haven, discussed the city’s Elm City Resident card initiative, launched in 2007.

  • Municipal ID card available to everyone regardless of immigration status.
  • Card launched as a way to address challenges faced by undocumented immigrants, including underreporting of crime, wage theft, profiling, difficulties opening bank accounts.
  • Early political opposition galvanized community and brought people together in support of program.

Nisha Agarwal

Overview: On the design and implementation of a citywide ID card for all New York City residents.

  • Building on New Haven initiative, the IDNYC card promotes inclusion and improved access to public spaces and services for immigrants.
  • Designed to resemble government ID card; linked benefits include banking and access to cultural institutions, government buildings, libraries.
  • 630,000 cardholders enrolled in the first 10 months.

KEYNOTE: Nandan Nilekani, Former chairman of UIDAI

Overview: The former chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) recounted the history of the Aadhaar system.

  • Aadhaar formed in response to low birth registration and high percent of leakage in India’s social program cash transfers.
  • Aadhaar has achieved considerable success: reduction of false entitlement claims, saving as much as $2 billion/year; high level data security due to open source software and privacy-centered design.

PANEL 5: National Identification: Protecting privacy and ensuring data security

Experts on privacy and data security on the opportunities and risks presented by national ID systems.

David Lyon

Overview: A conceptual analysis of ID systems, which are fundamentally ambiguous.

  • ID cards can facilitate state surveillance; this does not make their use inappropriate in all contexts.
  • ID systems should be overseen in a democratic fashion to ensure the accountability of system supervisors.

Robert Gellman

Overview: On how to address privacy concerns including those related to security incursions.

  • Centralized ID systems are vulnerable. The privacy of such systems can be enhanced by using privacy impact assessment, by introducing fair information practices, by creating an independent chief privacy officer position in government, and by moving towards a federated structure of data collection.

Latanya Sweeney

Overview: On the security risks of the US’s Social Security number system.

  • Major forms of identity fraud in the US stem from SSN system insecurities.
  • Ongoing reliance on insecure identity systems increases risk of cyberattacks.
  • Government should seek institutional and technological mechanisms to enhance security systems.

Panel 6: Inclusion and Exclusion: Ethical and human rights implications of identification systems in context of statelessness

The final panel examined the ethical and human rights implications of ID systems, emphasizing the need to understand that identification can be either a right or a threat, especially for minority populations.

Andrew Hopkins

Overview: Discussion of UNHCR’s efforts to provide services to refugee populations through biometric identification management.

  • UNHCR deploying biometric tools to improve birth registration, distribution of food and other services, refugee mobility, and understanding of movement in and out of refugee camps.
  • Biometric identification has served to increase donor confidence in service delivery and contributed to a more accurate aggregation of global statistics.
  • Strong need for further work in determining if and how data should be shared with host governments.

Edwin Black

Overview: Presented the revelations of his book IBM and the Holocaust. He examined IBM’s role in co-planning six phases of the Holocaust using identity punch cards and the Hollerith Machine and the role of corporate power in enabling states to persecute minorities.

Margareta Matache

Overview: Elaborated the implications of identification and registration for European Roma communities.

  • 70,000-80,000 Roma remain stateless and continue to face discrimination when they attempt to register.
  • Concurrently, fingerprinting and biometric proposals for Roma in France (2009/10) and Italy (2008) were designed not to assist Roma but to monitor re-entry after deportation.
  • Important to address the tension between the rights enabled by identification and the threats from state registration systems to marginalized populations facing deportation and discrimination.


A moderated discussion of how history has shaped our understanding of national ID systems and their future role in governance.

Joseph Atick reflected on lessons and challenges from the rollout of ID systems in Mexico, Indonesia, and Brazil. Emphasized transparency as a way of winning public buy-in, cautioned against getting locked into proprietary software, and discussed how leaders should promote arrangements that avoid competition between government agencies.

Mia Harbitz provided a conceptual tour of the issues, emphasizing the legal, administrative, and political dimensions of ID programs. Harbitz also stressed the need for ID systems to recognize local culture and customs.

Alan Gelb emphasized the timely nature of the conference, and asserted that though itself neutral, technology can facilitate development or be used for surveillance purposes. Gelb also noted the ongoing question of whether countries should adopt a centralized, universal ID system, or pursue more federated institutions.

Deborah Rose noted that this is the first academic conference on National ID systems; that this important role should continue; and that the more inclusive a national ID number system is, the more useful a tool it can be for development.

Launched in September 2013, the National ID Number (NIN) Project works to examine the scientific, technical, social and political aspects of national ID numbers. Under the leadership of Jacqueline Bhabha, director of Research at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, along with conference co-chair and FXB visiting scholar Deborah Rose, the program aims to build an interdisciplinary body of knowledge on national identification numbers, examining the necessity, benefits, challenges, feasibility and implications of the growing adoption of such a system by countries worldwide.