The personal cost of accessing Covid financial support in Argentina

This is the fourth field diary entry from Paz, one of our Digital Identity Fellows. Her year-long research project is focused on unravelling what digital identity, and identity in general, means to the unemployed and under-employed individuals receiving support from public job centres and local labour organisations in Gran Buenos Aires and Mar del Plata in Argentina.

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There’s little doubt that the Coronavirus pandemic is accelerating the digitisation of people’s everyday lives, in some places acting as an excuse to push certain groups to engage with technology and institutions in ways that might have seemed unlikely a year ago (just think of tracing apps, for example).

In Argentina, one less obvious example of this kind of engagement is with the Emergency Family Income Payment (IFE), a payment the government is providing to vulnerable workers (the self-employed, domestic and informal workers, for example) to help them cope with the crisis. According to those I have interviewed, the payment of 10,000ARG has proved invaluable as they try to stay afloat. But despite any good that has come out of these payments, I believe a closer examination sheds light on some problematic aspects of this newly-established relationship between the state, banks, and vulnerable citizens. This interaction with private institutions might – ironically – expose them to further exclusion as existing information and knowledge asymmetries could be amplified, deepening epistemic inequality in society.

The problems with the Emergency Family Income Payment (IFE)

The first IFE payment was made to approved applicants by direct transfer to their bank accounts or in person at public mail offices. But for the second payment, the government-mandated recipients could only receive the funds directly into their personal bank accounts. So those who weren’t banked had to very quickly become banked.

Today, getting banked is supposed to be easy, at least compared to how it used to be. A new type of bank account was announced by the government before the pandemic, called a free and universal bank account (cuenta gratuita universal or CGU), for any National Identity Card (DNI) holder regardless of their income or job situation. This account is free to maintain and all banks are obliged to offer it (how they go about offering it is another thing altogether – more on that in a future blog post, perhaps).

Returning to the IFE itself, one major problem has been how low-income undocumented workers (both migrants and Argentineans) have been excluded because one of the key requirements is that they have a valid DNI.

A second set of problems arises when people apply for the IFE, with the process particularly troublesome for the most vulnerable: having to apply online, opening bank accounts, and managing them through the banks’ apps which verify their identities using the SID, the digital identity system Argentina’s RENAPER (The National Registry of Persons) implemented in 2018. SID was built on top of the large and centralised national identity database system.

These requirements – being able to effectively find information online, to run complicated paperwork-type tasks, to protect and store personal information and digital identities (such as usernames and passwords) in order to access ANSES (the public agency in charge of IFE) and the banks’ apps over and over again, or needing a certain type of hardware that is their own, and so on – become problematic because of the information and knowledge asymmetries we know exist. People are not being given the option to opt out of these digital interactions, despite the urgency for a benefit like IFE. Let’s think of unemployed workers who have a physical disability and no internet at home, blind people, those with no smartphones or computers, those who just do not know how to navigate the online space and have no-one to ask for assistance.

Some of the NGO workers I interviewed mentioned the long hours they have had to spend, at the beginning of quarantine, helping people apply for IFE (despite that not being their job), and their anguish at knowing that some of the most vulnerable would probably not be able to apply for IFE because they didn’t have anyone to help them with the process. Recently, I myself helped one of my interviewees, Lisandro, find information on how to open a bank account to collect the second IFE payment. Lisandro is a clever and highly articulate guy in his twenties who has no wifi at home and unreliable connectivity on his five-year-old, second-hand smartphone. I spent hours on the internet, on the phone with a bank, and using Twitter and Facebook to ask banks about why the apps didn’t work on Lisandro’s phone. For me, I was very aware that I have a laptop and a good internet connection and don’t have the stress of wondering how I’ll eat next week.

Handing over personal information

You may be wondering why this is different from other situations in which governments handle benefits online, and which might complicate people’s lives. In short, it is because it involves the explicit sharing of highly personal and immutable information. And because of this, it ends up normalising the giving away online of all that we are. It is also different because banks hold a lot of power, and because IFE beneficiaries aren’t given the chance to decide whether they want these banks to have access to their biometric data. And they do not have much of a choice given they can’t afford not to try to access IFE. Higher income citizens aren’t put in this situation by the government.

People are being forced to engage digitally in order to verify they are who they say they are to get the IFE, and in the process provide third parties with all the information contained in their DNIs. It’s not unusual to be asked to show some proof of identity whenever we are asked to, and this is a fairly standard (and expected) process here in Argentina. But in this case people aren’t just required to show their physical credential (DNI), they are being asked for much more – and the how and why have not been made explicit.

People ask me: What do you mean by ‘digital identity’?

This is the third field diary entry from Paz, one of our Digital Identity Fellows. Her year-long research project is focused on unravelling what digital identity, and identity in general, means to the unemployed and under-employed individuals receiving support from public job centres and local labour organisations in Gran Buenos Aires and Mar del Plata in Argentina.

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The image at the top of this article is a photo I took of a piece of paper with some phone contacts I was given at a public job centre office. They had ‘recycled’ people’s ID photocopies. I walked away with all the personal data of a person I didn’t know. 

When conducting interviews, I try to avoid defining identity or digital identity. Providing definitions, at least at the beginning, might create a barrier with the interviewees, some of whom might suspect that “I am an expert and I only want you to confirm what I already know”. I do not want such a barrier, precisely because of the exploratory nature of my research; the knowledge I am looking for is in the interviewees. This is the case with all the interviewees, including those with no formal technology background whatsoever, or those with vulnerable backgrounds, or those looking for a job. More often than not, however, I am being increasingly asked for a definition. My response has been to paraphrase definitions in ways that can be easy to grasp, and which are also relatable and open enough so that people can be confident that their own knowledge and experiences are relevant. 

I am doing my fieldwork in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and a full-scale quarantine in Argentina. My interviews are now conducted online or over the phone, which makes it even more important for my narrative to be compelling and to elicit a nuanced conversation (that doesn’t end up turning into COVID-19 coping strategies). 

In this post I’ll first provide the formal definitions, and then the informal ones I am mostly using during interviews. 

 

Key concepts

Identity

I do not provide a clear-cut definition, and I believe I am excused for this because identity is too much of a complex and ever changing concept. As Florian Coulmas rightly explains: 

“Individual identities are complex structures combining inherited features with various group memberships, loyalties, values, belief systems, and fashions. These structures adjust to changing circumstances and so does the concept of identity itself. Elements may be discarded or remixed, new ones added on occasion. Hence a definitive definition is not available”.

Despite the lack of an all-encompassing definition (as explained, for example, by Aleks Krotoski and Ben Hammersley in Identity and Agency) there is a list of things ‘identity’ might refer to:

  • the way one is recognized as an entity;
  • how we define and express our self individually or collectively;
  • the sum ownership of the tangible and intangible assets of the self; 
  • and the sum of self-referential claims or claims about others made by a digital subject (a concern for computer science).

 

Digital identity

Related of course, but different from ‘identity’, ‘digital identity’ seems a little less complex in that it refers to ‘all of the above but in a digital format’. Or perhaps not.  According to Krotoski & Hammersley, digital identity can be defined as:

“A set of data that acts as a unique reference to a specific object”, which “can be a person, a thing, a concept, a group, or any other definable entity”.

Digital identity’s main role is authentication: verifying whether an entity is who (or what) it is believed to be, and worthy of trust. And in the case of digital identity this authentication is binary: either completely true or completely false.

A digital identity relating to a person can be made up of a number of attributes (data) depending on what it is needed for, and could include one or more of: an email address, digital photos, usernames and passwords, biometric data, or any other information that can be accessed digitally (Yoti toolkit).

Our email address, for example, can be our digital identity within a specific email system, but it can also work as the digital identity we have on another, unrelated service (Krotoski & Hammersley) (like another platform for which we use our email to sign in). 

Your digital identity can be verified using documents or other data such as biometrics or identification credentials, which can confirm you are who you say you are, in legal terms. But not all of our digital identities need to be verified in this way, only those that might be used to access services from governments (e.g healthcare) and the private sector (e.g banking).

 

Online identity

Then we have a third, and equally relevant concept: ‘online identity’:

“While digital identity answers the question, ‘Are we sure that x is y?’, online identity continues the statement, ‘I, y, consist of a, b, and c’.” (Krotoski & Hammersley).

Online identity relates closely to the offline definition most of us have of personal identity or self-identity: it is the expression of this self-identity as mediated by computers and the internet. And importantly, this expression necessitates editing, a process that is culturally and technologically constrained (or limited): 

“Online identities are not limitless in their expressive abilities. Unlike the self-signals shared between strangers on the street, each identity marker on the web is proactively constructed using the tools available, and online identity is not without systems and structures that constrain the individual, both socially and technologically” (Krotoski & Hammersley).

The use of a tool to build an online identity (for example, a profile on Facebook) reduces our ability to decide which parts of our online identity(ies) we want to express, and how we want to express them. The choices, and therefore agency, are really in the hands of the designers of the platforms; choices that are political and cultural. We do not have the control we are often told we have. The designers of online services directly define the way we build our online selves.

 

Digital identity and our fluid online identity

As seen, digital identity is necessary to an online identity, but they are not the same: 

“Digital identities are fixed and binary; online identities are fluid, and contain multitudes” (Krotoski & Hammersley).

The social sciences have long considered an individual’s self-concept as an evolving process, in which we discard aspects that no longer fit us in a given context (Krotoski & Hammersley). This ability to include and discard, allowing our identities to evolve, is essential to what we call ‘agency’. The more constrained we are to do that, the less ‘agents’ we are. The problem is: “the nature of some contemporary constructions of digital identity (notably, for search or social networking applications) does not account for this evolution. Rather, it incorporates all aspects of the self (self-reported or algorithmically generated) and delivers it upon request”. Identities are treated as trackable, unchanged, stable. Thus the need to incorporate the nuances of our experiences into computer constructions of identity (Krotoski & Hammersley). 

Such ‘nuance’ might prove even more vital during the processes of editing our online identities, and creating new digital identities, when looking for a job. Among vulnerable groups such editing might be crucial, as career/training paths are not the ‘traditionally expected college-graduate-school’ and discrimination takes place regarding issues such as where people live, where they went to school, what their technical qualifications are, and so on. 

 

The word “Respect”, written by adults and young adults at CEPLA, also called Casa Caracol, a community center in Mar del Plata

 

My narrative during interviews

At the start of my interviews I provide many of these same definitions, but make them a little less formal:

  1. Identity is something complex, yet we all know what our identities are. We know they relate to things we cannot change (like the country or social group we were born into), but also to other things that can change, like our values and beliefs that change over time. There is sameness, but also difference. We are and are not our 5 year-old self. It is a complex concept we all need to grasp. 
  2. Digital identity is something rather different. Digital identities exist because we also live in a digital world. A digital identity is a set of data that defines a specific object: a person, a group or any other thing. This data, or digital identity, is only used to verify someone or something is who or what it says it is; the answer can only be yes or no. There are no in-betweens. When entering Facebook, for example, you are required to verify you are “Paty X” by entering your username (which is your email) and a password. So, in this case your digital identity on Facebook is made up of two attributes, your username and your password. If you enter the wrong password the system determines that you are not Paty X. Period. 
  3. Online identity, on the other hand, refers to our ‘fluid’ or changing identities: it is not about “are you or not who you say you are?”, but more of “yes, I am Paty and I am also this and that, extrovert and artist, activist and organizer, and I currently maintain a Facebook page about sharing tools we don’t use too often with our neighbours”. Our online identities are the expression – in the digital world – of our offline and nuanced identities. 

 

So far, interviewees have added a lot more nuance to the digital identity and online identity definitions. This proves that providing simple and informal definitions can help set the stage for a discussion without competing against – or overshadowing – the interviewees’ own understandings. One example of such nuance refers to the fact many people share their digital devices with other people, often family members. More on this in future posts. 

Lastly, just to mention: in order to compensate for the lack of in person clues or contextual information during the now-online interviews I am adding two research methods: photo/video/voice elicitation and story completion, which I will also describe in more detail in another post. 

Paz’s diary entry January 2020 – Changing faces of identity in Argentina

This is the second field diary entry from Paz, one of our Digital Identity Fellows. Her year-long research project is focused on unravelling what digital identity, and identity in general, means to the unemployed and under-employed individuals receiving support from public job centres and local labour organisations in Gran Buenos Aires and Mar del Plata in Argentina.

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Discussing digital identity is hard, particularly here in Argentina. It has forced me to rethink the interview questions as well as the list of interviewees. So far I have conducted a number of semi-structured interviews with the key research subjects: unemployed and under-employed individuals, as well as unstructured interviews with researchers, NGO workers, policy makers, and actors in the digital identity/identification, technology for development, poverty, and/or employment fields. I must say even with them, talking about digital identity feels interestingly weird. I believe this might be because, contrary to what happens in countries where most people do not have a legal identity, or even in rich countries like Australia and the UK where citizens opposed the implementation of national ID schemes, we have fully normalized the processes of identification (to the extent that it becomes difficult to reflect on what they actually entail, including the positive and negative effects on our lives). Not surprisingly then, linking these processes to the issue of employment is an unexplored area of research.

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”  (David Foster Wallace)

In this field diary entry I’ll comment on some of the themes that have appeared during my first round of interviews.

 

An identity-filled country?

According to the World Bank, ambitions to attribute a unique number to every single person in a country started at the end of the 19th century – and it did so in Argentina! when doctor Luis Almandos “lobbied to issue each citizen a unique number based on the dactyloscopic analysis of their fingerprints”. In a move partly inspired by Almandos, Argentina implemented a credential-based model of identification decades ago. In 1948 the National Registry of Persons (RENAPER) was created “with the mission of registering and certifying the identity of all people who have an Argentinean nationality or who are in Argentina’s jurisdiction”. But even before that, men and women already had credentials: in 1906 men started receiving a “military enrollment booklet”, and in 1947, women were given a “civic booklet”, when they gained the right to vote.

The compulsory National Identity Document (or DNI, Documento Nacional de Identidad) was adopted in 1968 under Onganía’s military dictatorship, and is currently the only personal ID instrument. In 2011, the Ministry of Security created the Federal System of Biometric Identification (SIBIOS), a “centralized, nation-wide biometric ID service that allows law enforcement to “cross-reference” information with biometric and other data initially collected for operating the general national ID registry. In 2014, RENAPER established the only valid identification document in the new digital DNI card (PI).

The DNI “has become so ingrained in society throughout the years that inhabitants take it for granted in the exercise of their rights and duties” (ADC). Everyone in Argentina is familiar with the different scenarios where we are required to show our DNI: for transacting with banks, buying travel tickets, entering public and private buildings, and so on.

When something has been part of your entire life for so long it is difficult to look at it with critical eyes. Reflecting on identity and identification in Argentina requires additional critical lenses to help adapt investigative techniques and to collect better data. And the first step for doing this is to really get to know the initial data. Thanks to a ‘getting to know my data’ exercise, here are a few things I found out.

 

Informal jobs and doing whatever it takes, no matter the privacy

One issue that quickly came up when I interviewed researchers was the role of social networks, especially Facebook, on people’s search for employment. People would not only look for vacancies on Facebook, they would send over their personal data without checking the legitimacy of the groups they share it with. “They would send their photo, address, everything”. “They are desperate for a job”,  so “they try it all”. And this might be linked to the worrying growth of informal employment in the country. People aren’t expecting to find formal jobs; using Facebook that way might not seem quite so strange given the circumstances.

Something else that came up from one interviewee was the notion of ‘the fiction of self-employment’. Interviewees mentioned the minimal impact public job centres tend to have, and that the approach favored by the latest governments tended to be in promoting self-employment over other types of work. While there are public programs to support the unemployed, they seem insufficient and most people have no idea they even exist. There is a widespread lack of information.

 

Privacy and information asymmetries

There was a persistent – although not always explicit – concern about privacy among all interviewees, likely fed by the processes of institutional discrimination they often experience and read about. For example, the province of Salta (Argentina) signed an agreement with Microsoft in 2017 to use artificial intelligence to prevent teenage pregnancy and school dropout, choosing a group of 397 vulnerable school girls as subjects (Web). It was controversial, critics seeing it as a control mechanism targeting individuals in vulnerable situations who never gave their consent. One called for the need to “remember that only the users of public services are subjected to these systems”, and that elites can turn to private providers and maintain greater control over their data and preserve their privacy (PrivacyInt). With your DNI number being linked to your public transport card, said one interviewee, “they just know all your movements”. And in fact, despite some digital security advancements, most of us Internet users feel very-easily identified. Our actual identity might not be known right away, but can be inferred with enough access to our data (like geolocation data) (Policy Brief Identity).

 

Paz Bernaldo – Centro de Capacitación Colectivo Dignidad, Barrios de Pie, Mar del Plata

The second main theme coming out of my research can described as ‘information asymmetries’

In his blog “Digital Identity: Evolving, or just cloning itself?”, Robin Wilton reviews the 2017 “Principles on Identification” World Bank report, in which the main premise is that full participation in society and achieving our potential depends on the ability to identify ourselves. But the document, despite proposing a principle on reducing information asymmetries, says Wilton, doesn’t consider the ‘real information asymmetries’ – those taking place between us individuals and “those entities that can intimately identify (and track, and profile, and monetize) us without any sort of trusted enrolment”. Wilton calls for including anonymity and pseudonymity as requirements, so that digital identity systems evolve, and not simply clone themselves.

Those living in countries with decades-old systems of identification go through “trusted enrolment processes” (whether they should be actually trusted is another issue). But in today’s data-driven internet, the likes of Google, Amazon, Facebook or any similar company are exempt from these processes. They haven’t given us trustworthy credentials, “and yet they could paint a unique and extremely intimate portrait of our identities”. Interviewees often expressed an uncomfortable feeling of lack of control over their data, and mentioned their attempts to limit what they share online. Could it be they don’t feel at ease with such untrusted enrolments? But then why, despite their worries, haven’t they used pseudonyms or gone anonymous online? If the use of anonymity and pseudonymity to manage our digital identities are seen as essential, then there remains plenty of work to do.

 

What next?

It is difficult to remember our own digital daily experiences and discuss them – our uses become routine and are easily forgotten. This is why, during my next round of interviews, I will propose we use a computer or phone and go through some of their everyday digital actions together, while going through the questions. More on what I discover soon!

Who are you when you’re looking for a job?

This is the first field diary entry from Paz, one of our Digital Identity Fellows. Her year-long research project is focused on unravelling what digital identity, and identity in general, means to the unemployed and under-employed individuals receiving support from public job centres and local labour NGOs in Gran Buenos Aires and Mar del Plata in Argentina.

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What do you do when you’re job hunting? Do you go out into the streets and hand over your printed CV to anyone that wants it? Most likely, I presume, you do not. Instead, you probably decide to use the internet, and platforms like LinkedIn.

But I wonder, have you built different versions of yourself to appeal to different potential employers? Is there any specific information about yourself you highlighted or avoided mentioning (maybe the neighbourhood or city you live in)? Have you had to show an ID to prove who you are during the search? Have you actively curated your social media in order to portray yourself in certain ways you think work in your favor? Have you searched for advice in online forums, articles, or career coaching sites that drive home the importance of your online presence?

I have done almost all of that. I live offline, and I live online. During job hunts I have intentionally tracked my digital footprints so as to ‘curate’ my identity. But does everyone act the same? Does this behaviour depend on your socio-economic class, or where you live? I assume it does, to a large extent. And as a Yoti Digital Identity Fellow, I am digging into this very question in Argentina. My focus is the knowledge, lived experiences, and perceptions of vulnerable, under- and unemployed individuals who seek the help of local organizations (such as NGOs, public job centers and community groups).

Why the vulnerable under- and unemployed? Well, they are often considered to be a group most in need of expert-designed policies and technology. Their knowledge is also not often considered relevant to solve the kinds of technology or unemployment-related problems that affect them (or just about any big complex social problem). These assumptions are clearly misguided. 

I will listen to and observe how they live online, who they are online, and how they change online. I will also explore the interplay between identity and identification for them, and what matters to them and what does not. And after the analysis, I will report back to them. There will be lots of reading too, and talks to researchers and decision makers, but the main source of knowledge will come from those very people living online and offline while looking for a job.

 

Identity

Overall, excluding the world “digital” (add ‘digital’ or ‘digitalization’ and  things get a lot more complicated, so that’s for another blog), what do I understand of identity and identification? This article provides a concise definition: identity is understood as often implying “a kind of multidimensional social location of an individual relative to other people and institutions around him or her, as an intangible, always contested something an individual creates, or perhaps has, as a result of their interactions with other human beings and systems”. 

Identification, on the other hand, often implies a process, or “a proof, a system, or a transaction involving a subject and an evaluator, centered around verifying a claim that a person is one person and not any other”. It is a process which “grants access and rights; it is the representation of the individual within/to an administrative system”. 

And an ID often signifies a “tangible artifact — a document or element that supports a claim or signals that identification might be possible. ID doesn’t mean much without the identification systems behind it.” 

 

The research – what and why

The main objective of my fellowship is to unravel what digital identity, and identity in general, means for under and unemployed individuals receiving support from public job centres and local NGOs (this includes community organizations, formal or informal). I will focus my research in two major cities in Argentina: Gran Buenos Aires and Mar del Plata, which is the city with the highest unemployment rate in the country. 

Photo: CC-BY-SA-4.0, Gonzalo Gonzalez 

I made a number of assumptions at the start of my fellowship, and these are important to acknowledge as they provide an initial framework for the research (and which could well be proven wrong).

 

Assumptions

The first assumption is that people in search of jobs often interact with a wide range of organizations, and that digital tools or platforms increasingly mediate these interactions. The second is that the people behind the under- and unemployment statistics are agents rather consciously manoeuvering their identities, enhancing, modifying, or hiding parts of them. Looking for employment involves offering your identity, and includes repeated processing of a seeker’s identification. But for these groups – and this is my third assumption – the process of identity adapting/offering comes with added vulnerability. They move in a digital layer creating digital traces and footprints with little or no control over them, which might negatively affect their job opportunities. It is true we all experience this lack of control, but not in the same way. Vulnerable or marginalized people, those most likely to seek help from public job centres and NGOs, are badly hit by the rapid digitalization of the public space and economy. Because of this added vulnerability, the making and changing of their identities, and their identifications as representations, deserves attention. 

 

Reporting back

I will use a mixture of qualitative research methods in the year ahead, including participatory observation and semi-structured interviews. Importantly, the third part of the process will involve reporting back the analysis and initial results to those interviewed, and then considering their feedback while producing the final reports and outputs. These final products – which will include blogs, radio/podcasts and videos – will be made in such a way that the research subjects and the general public will be able to read, see or listen to them. Presenting these outputs to the research subjects, organizations and the general public will constitute the final part of my fellowship. 

 

Reporting back is important and relevant, and is the reason I applied to the Yoti Fellowship Programme in the first place. For the last few years, I have been committed to working towards the democratization of knowledge, technology, and science. Creating digital identity/identification systems that serve the needs (and respect the human rights) of those at the bottom requires the study of critical issues of inequality, power, and knowledge. The ability, for example, for people to provide conscious and real consent over the use of their identity requires them to ‘know’ what is at stake and feel confident enough to exercise their agency. 

 

Next steps

I’m hopeful that this aspect of my work will also provide opportunities to discuss the need to change public and private sector top-down approaches to technology, which perpetuate dependence and inequality. In this sense, I expect this reporting to give us the chance to discuss our digital futures, resisting the idea there is only one possible future out there, and that there is nothing we can do about the way technology affects us. 

 

If you have a question for Paz or are interested in her research, you can reach her here. For more information on the Digital Identity Fellowship, please head to our website.

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