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Will countries grant foreign states access to their sovereign identity databases in the future?

With mass immigration and movements across international border highly likely in the future, it has become necessary to deliberate on whether there is a need to share identity data between countries. A discussion around the same was organised by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) where experts from diverse domains shared their views on why inter-governmental identity data sharing might be needed, what the current status is in this regard, and what will happen in the future.

Why is this an important question? 

  • There is a mass increase in immigration coming in the following decades. Mostly from the global south to the global north. This is evident from the birthrates, ageing populations in the north, etc.
  • There is also going to be an increase in temporary migration of people, not just agricultural workers or workers engaged in industries such as construction, but post the pandemic, an increase in people living and working across borders.

These two reasons could result in a large number of people living in countries with legal identities issued by foreign governments. Countries will want to receive more identity data on both their own citizens and foreign citizens in years to come to figure out things like taxation, residency rights, and welfare benefits. For example, if an Indian citizen is to migrate abroad, the foreign country might want access to the Indian’s Aadhaar, Ration Card, or PAN related information.

Will there be an increase in intergovernmental agreement to access core national identity databases?

More intra-governmental activity at the moment: While there is interest for intergovernmental discussions on this front in the EU, “at the moment, we see a lot more activity at the intra-governmental stage where governments are still thinking [about] how can they actually use the range of public and private datasets inside the country and enable that to be unlocked to support inclusion,” Julie Dawson, Director of Regulatory and Policy, Yoti, said in response to this question. Yoti is a digital identity platform that enables about 10 million people around the world to prove who they are.

Aggregation of data on a domestic basis: Speaking from a financial inclusion point of view Shashi Raghunandan, Senior Vice President, Humanitarian and Development, MasterCard, said that there is “not so much on the cross-border intergovernmental sharing, but certainly aggregation of data on a domestic basis is another megatrend that we are seeing.” Both Dawson’s and Raghunandan’s views are supported by numerous intra-governmental initiatives that we see in India such as the national health ID mission and state-specific projects like Tamil Nadu’s State Family Database.

Needs institutional framework: While there are some discussions on this at the intergovernmental level, “without an institutional framework or a policy framework to facilitate the data sharing, we don’t see too much progress happening beyond that from especially from the private sector,” Raghunandan said. “There has been some progress to that extent. I think the OECD has put up initial discussion papers on the high-level views of how data sharing can happen between platforms and governments and the private sector and governments,” Raghunandan added.

Verification services more likely: “We do not see data being increasingly moved central into a government agency. Instead, what you see is this layer of providers that may emerge in the future that are able to connect governments looking to authenticate documents to the issuing bodies around the world,” Raghunandan said. This will maintain “privacy and keep the data managed better” Raghunandan added. India’s Aadhaar project is an example of such a verification service. State governments across India can use Aadhaar to authenticate the identity of an individual to provide welfare benefits and services but cannot access the biometric or demographic data that it contains.

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Separation between provision of services and the actual identity information: Simon Reed, Deputy Director, IrisGuard, concurred with Raghunandan’s view on verification services being more likely. His company works with the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) to provide biometric authentication for refugees to enable them to receive welfare benefits. But his company only helps government departments verify the identity of a person and does not share any details with them. “So there is a very big separation between provision of services and the actual identity information that does not cross any borders at all. That’s how you manage to integrate banks. We have half a dozen banks that are also integrated system. They provide ATM services, they provide cash-out services. They do not know anything about the person who is actually utilizing those services, but it’s in a very secure, secure manner,” Reed said.

Digital nomads will fuel more discussions on this topic: Dawson pointed out that with a rise in people working away from the office due to the pandemic, there has and will continue to be a trend where people work from wherever they feel most comfortable. This has resulted in people living and working from across the border and this has also resulted in services cropping that makes this process easier. Companies that verify credentials and help people get into a rental agreement in another country are examples of services cropping up on this front. Digital nomad migration is likely to fuel more discussions on intergovernmental sharing of data, especially when looking at such movement from a taxation perspective.

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