Stage 5
10:00 - 11:00
Participatory Paradise
The digital identity revolution – great hopes or deep concerns?

Short thesis

Millions of refugees and migrants have provided their biometrical data to humanitarian and state actors to obtain a digital identity (DID). While widely applauded as a tool for empowerment and inclusion, DID have also raised many red flags, especially for human rights experts. Keywords: data protection and privacy. We ask "what's the way forward"?


The future has arrived at Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan. Standing in the Tazweed supermarket, about 10 km from the border to Syria, Hana, a refugee woman, is waiting at the checkout counter to buy some vegetables. But Hana does not pay with cash or by credit card. Instead she gazes into a camera which scans her iris and automatically triggers the payment process. One – two – three seconds later a picture of her eye appears on the screen of the cashier: Hana has been identified.

Hana is one over 7.1 million refugees registered by UNHCR since 2013. Today, almost 69 million individuals – more than at any other time in history – are forcibly displaced due to conflict, persecution, violence or disasters. As many of them are unable to satisfyingly answer the question “who are you”, they are often denied basic human rights and services.

Unsurprisingly, DID have come to present a silver lining for these invisible individuals. In light of the Global Compact on Refugees, many humanitarian actors promote the use of DID as an innovative tool to empower vulnerable groups, foster self-reliance and increase access to services. Meanwhile, human rights experts express privacy and data protection concerns – especially regarding the collected data being used for internal security and surveillance purposes. Already today, databases that house biometrics have been opened up to national security and law enforcement agencies to track individuals.

So how can we use DID to empower migrants and refugees like Hana without simultaneously exacerbating the fundamental rights problems posed by mass surveillance and data-driven migration management? In this session, we will double-click on some of the promises and challenges DID hold in this context:

  • What lessons learned can we draw from the latest DID projects?
  • How can DID schemes avoid the risk of “aiding surveillance”?
  • And how can we best deliver services that empower and protect the individual?