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. ***** 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.
This is the third field diary entry from Subhashish, one of our Digital Identity Fellows. His year-long research project is focused on the challenges and opportunities within marginalised groups most affected by Aadhaar, India’s national digital ID system. ***** Before Indian society had the chance to recover from the hardship of both a financial slowdown and the controversial amendment to the citizenship act, it got hit by COVID-19. Many marginalized communities were already struggling to survive poverty, hunger and systemic exclusions, and things have got even harder as life comes to a standstill thanks to social distancing and wider lockdown regulations. At the time of writing, 2,293 Indians have died of COVID-19 and 22,454 have tested positive. 24 people, mostly migrant workers who were desperately trying to return to their own houses, were also reported to have died recently because of the lockdown. Most people died in an attempt to walk hundreds of kilometres, in hunger and illness, and some as a result of indiscriminate attacks. Fingerprint-based authentication (as used by Aadhaar) would almost certainly lead to further spreading of COVID-19, and India’s Public Distribution System (our social welfare service) predominantly uses Aadhaar for authentication. The state of Kerala identified this risk early on and suspended the use of all biometric authentication systems. This, and all the other social, political and transactional risks linked to Aadhaar — thanks to COVID-19 — have put marginalized communities at much higher risk, and furthered calls for a revised look at the digital ID ecosystem. While migrant workers in the cities of Delhi, Mumbai and Surat desperately try to return back to their native homes, many struggle to get the COVID-19 relief and regular support of food grains and rations that they are entitled to – all because PDS is yet to be made universal to ensure an equitable public benefit. Aadhaar and social services The use of Aadhaar-based authentication – or linking the use of Aadhaar with essential social services – makes exclusions more likely than ever. A 68-year-old disabled woman with missing fingers was denied from enrolling for Aadhaar which resulted in receiving no food grains/ration for 11 months. Another disabled woman was denied rations for other three years, and a five-member family, including an elderly coupled, have been in a similar situation for the past six months. Harshabati Kheti of Lachipur, Sonepur distt., Odisha was denied of Aadhaar first for not having fingers intact. She hasn’t received any food grains or other ration for 11 months, or #COVID19 relief. https://t.co/LXCZYwcyKo @Food_Odisha @rajaaswain @CMO_Odisha #MarginalizedAadhaar pic.twitter.com/W4sC2VduAO — Subhashish P. ସୁଭ (@subhapa) April 30, 2020 Nabrangpur, Odisha: ~100 people denied of food grains + ration due to errors in records, despite of having Ration Cards & Aadhaar. Includes an old couple + family of 5 w. no ration since 6 months and family of a disabled man who is waiting since 3 yrs.#MarginalizedAadhaar (1/n) pic.twitter.com/8CzOkSIsBY — Subhashish P. ସୁଭ (@subhapa) April 13, 2020 Right before the pandemic, India was experiencing a huge financial slowdown resulting in job cuts and price rises. There were also large-scale protests around the country against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), a controversial new amendment to the 1955 citizenship law that promises citizenship to some illegal migrants on the basis of their religious faiths, while denying Muslims immigrants and several other minorities that are excluded under the amended law. India is also in the middle of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), an effort to identify and build a database of “legal citizens”. The initial NRC rollout in the state of Assam identified as “legal” 31 million people out of the 33 million total population while leaving 1.9 million, mostly Muslims, as stateless. The government has plans to implement NRC across the country. The fear of statelessness and another Rohingya-like situation led to nationwide protests and then mitigating acts by both the state and non-state as they tried to defend the CAA and NRC. More than 65 people have been killed in protests that lasted for over 100 days. Liberty from a database Here lies the use of personal data at the center of everything — be it the identification of protesters who speak against the government, or identifying vehicles owned by Muslims from a government database for selective-targeting during a communal pogroms, or the identification of people who have traveled to a coronavirus-affected country. The government is reportedly in the process of developing a geo-fencing app that can alert local authorities if a person in COVID-19 quarantine or isolation attempts to ‘escape’, using the affected person’s cell tower location. Attempts to deal with COVID-19 have also resulted in a provincial government agency sharing personal data — including legal names and complete addresses — of 19,240 individuals who were under home-isolation post-foreign travel. Lawyer Rahul Matthan cites the lack of appreciation of personal privacy by the government as a reason for this clear violation of privacy, a fundamental right granted by the Indian constitution. Aadhaar, India’s national biometric-based digital identity program, plays a key role in most mass-scale identification initiatives. A recent three-part investigation report reveals that the Indian government is planning to build an “all-encompassing, auto-updating, searchable database to track every aspect of the lives” of all 1.2 billion residents. The shift from Aadhaar being an identity in its initial design to a system for bettering public welfare to its use in mass surveillance is worrisome. India’s then finance minister Arun Jaitley even renamed the Aadhaar Bill of Indian constitution “Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act”. The civil rights of individuals can become compromised when a secural state – with a Hindu right-wing political party in power – requests Muslim Aadhaar-holders to prove their citizenship. Recent studies suggest that claims that Aadhaar-based biometric authentication (ABBA) reduces the leakage of grains and other resources are a myth. Findings have also highlighted that the use of Aadhaar adds an additional burden of 17% on beneficiaries, with 10% of genuine PDS holders denied their benefits because of false authentication errors. This has led to a huge number of exclusions. Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT), a government scheme that also uses Aadhaar for a direct-to-bank-account transfer, has led to a failure of 690 million INR (9.08 million USD) worth of transactions. Apart from the authentication failures, cases of stolen fingerprint casts being used for fraud have also surfaced — these did not exist before Aadhaar-based authentications were rolled out on such a scale. Also, considering the uncertainty of a return of normality post-COVID, it might be wiser to avoid physical contact by using alternative methods of authentication — instead of fingerprint scanning where the forced use of Aadhaar for public welfare payments would be problematic. Many isolated indigenous communities might not have immunity to even the most common diseases and extra precautions need to be taken in case non-indigenous persons are involved in distribution of resources. Lack of access to emergency healthcare information in native languages also remains a huge obstacle. MarginalizedAadhaar podcast In the first episode of my MaginalizedAadhaar podcast, rights activist and author Raghu Godavar discusses the systemic exclusions in the enrolment and use of Aadhaar. With help from Parsuram Harijan, Gori Keuta and Ratan Naik of the Taragan village of Nabarangpur dist., Odisha, India tell how they have been denied food grains and ration for months and years. And finally, human rights lawyer and researcher Usha Ramanathan dissects Aadhaar’s fundamental design to pinpoint the system issues with Aadhaar. Further reading “The complex architecture of DBT transactions is resulting in ….” 29 Feb. 2020, https://kaarana.org/?p=79. Accessed 6 Apr. 2020. “Mortality from contact-related epidemics among indigenous ….” 10 Sep. 2015, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4564847/. Accessed 6 Apr. 2020. “‘Data is the new oil, new gold,’ says PM Modi in Houston ….” 23 Sep. 2019, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/data-is-the-new-oil-new-gold-says-pm-modi-in-houston/story-SphHDPQadvF1dJRMXHCkwK.html. Accessed 6 Apr. 2020 Banner image credit: Corona crisis in Kolkata 14. Indrajit Das (CC-BY-SA-4.0)
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. ***** 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!
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. *** 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.