This article originally appeared on the website of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
November 24, 2015. Across the globe, legal identification is required for essential tasks such as opening a bank account, accessing government assistance, and registering for school. But around a third of the world’s population — 2.4 billion people — lack an official ID. While some countries are now grappling with the challenges and potential benefits of registering all residents, the United Nations goal of “legal identity for all” by 2030 remains a long way off.
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s FXB Center for Health & Human Rights brought together international experts from a variety of fields for a conference examining issues related to national ID systems, from technical and political hurdles, to ethical and security concerns. Held November 19–21, 2015, at Harvard University, the event grew out the FXB Center’s National Identification Number Project, which aims to influence policymaking.
With thousands of refugees fleeing Syria and other countries each week, the conference highlighted the urgent need for accurate identity management and verification among stateless and other marginalized populations. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is now piloting biometric solutions for identity verification in refugee camps.
In addition to helping people access services, ID cards can also foster a sense of social inclusion, said panelists during a session on uses of local and national identification systems. In New Haven, Conn., a city with a large population of refugees, the Elm City Resident Card was made available to everyone regardless of immigration status. John DeStefano, Jr., a former mayor of New Haven, described launching the program in 2007 in the face of political opposition. Ultimately, the program helped people see that refugees are contributing members of the community, not a threat, he said. DeStefano argued passionately against U.S. politicians who are trying to keep out Syrian refugees in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks. He said, “Smart communities don’t put up walls, they tear down walls.”
Nisha Agarwal, commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Rights, said that New Haven’s efforts paved the way for the launch in January of a resident ID card in New York. The card, which is accepted by the police and community banks and offers a range of perks, had 630,000 applicants in the first 10 months. “By promoting an inclusive city, you are creating social cohesion that improves security,” Agarwal said.
Other panels got into the nuts and bolts of how national ID systems have been managed in countries such as Iceland and India, and the potential benefits and concerns around data collection.
Ryan Seals, a postdoctoral researcher in Harvard Chan School’s Department of Epidemiology, described a research project made possible by health and occupational data obtained from Denmark, which uses a national ID number. Through this anonymized data, Seals and colleagues were able to explore risk factors for the rare disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Speakers also discussed safeguarding privacy, and potential misuses of identification data by hackers as well as governments. Concerns over data security led to the end of a short-lived national identity card program in the U.K. in 2010.
Conference co-chair Deborah Rose, SM ’75, a visiting scholar at the FXB Center, urged audience members to take at-risk populations into consideration when planning national ID systems, and to make sure that that they “be used for good and not evil.”
Panel moderators included Jacqueline Bhabha, director of research at the FXB Center and professor of the practice of health and human rights, Jennifer Leaning, FXB Center director and François-Xavier Bagnoud Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights, and Vincenzo Bollettino, director of the resilient communities program at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.
photo: Martha Stewart