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Almost 70 years ago, the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Those were times of important changes and a commitment to peace and prosperity. The declaration is one of humanity’s most precious achievements, as it establishes the equal dignity and worth of every person.

Today, as we enter the digital revolution, however, norms and practices are facing tremendous challenges and a broad commitment from different sectors is needed in order to bake human rights standards into the new generation of products and services.


The journey through respecting human rights, from design to delivery

As member of the Yoti Guardian Council, I have accompanied Yoti, a company providing leading identity authentication services, from its beginning.

Founded in 2014 by Robin Tombs, Duncan Francis and Noel Hayden, Yoti is a London-based technology company that set out on a mission to become the world’s trusted identity platform.

Now, in 2017, it is a global identity platform and free consumer app with many useful features but also a model that places privacy at its core, where users are in control of the data they share. Unlike most of the services in the market, it is not a massive database where the documents of people are all together, collected and mined without any restrictions. Yoti’s unique architecture puts the user in complete control of their data. The private keys that unlock a user’s data are stored on their device. Nobody else, not even Yoti, can access these keys. By scrambling and separating data in the way Yoti does, it avoids having one, big honeypot of personal user profiles for hackers to target.

As for the app’s uses, individuals can use the app to check the identity details of another person, prove their age using their phone, prove who they are to businesses online, log into websites without passwords, and much more besides.

The challenge the Yoti team faced when they started out was to create a product that would guarantee the privacy and digital dignity of all its users, and move away from the model of big pools of personal data, where the user loses control of what they share. From the early days, I explained the increasing erosion of fundamental rights worldwide. Gaps in privacy and security highlighted broader global inequalities. The vulnerability of much of the population’s data was being exploited.

The Guardian Council followed the process step by step, with a vigilant eye, making sure that universal human rights values were respected in each of the decisions: from the design of the product to the sub-products chosen from third party companies, from fair terms of use to internal practices that would make sure that the product was made by workers enjoying full exercise of their rights.

When the developers and designers had the duty to protect privacy and maximise autonomy of users and consumers as its design goal, their decisions were guided by principles. It took them time to find the right technology that would automate security and privacy, because it is designed to do so. It is delivered by the way the app is coded and deployed.

After that—satisfied with a unique product which embraces the highest standards of encryption, protects users from massive data breaches and empowers the user not only to control their data but also to decide who to share the data with on a case by case basis—other decisions were made. Those decisions concerned on the business partnerships and marketing techniques. The commitment to dignity did not stop with the product; it followed the commercialisation of the product, making sure that the privacy and interactions of a user with Yoti is respected at all times, without borders.


Human rights guiding technology design

The approach Yoti took was not an easy route to go down. There were many difficult decisions to make, where doing the right thing for users will take extra time, more resources and more consultations and design challenges.

Following this process made me realise how expensive it is to design for privacy and dignity, and for user empowerment rather than exploitation, but also how different the end product is. When a product is transparent and audited by external, independent actors, there is less room for abuse, increasing the trust and the safeguards for users.

The commitment of Yoti and its unique creation process should be known and tested by other companies. We need the tech industry to be principle oriented and embrace a human rights and human dignity approach as the guiding principles of the technology they code, empowering users and achieving the enhancement of rights and dignity through technology, ultimately leading to the advancement of rights.

With political will, commitment from companies like Yoti and engineers and designers guided by principles, we might be entering a new era of human rights, where we have the words and principles which inspired the UN Declaration coded into the technologies we create.


Renata Avila
Yoti Guardian