Trends in Migration Technology: Digital Identity for Refugees and Global Citizens

What is identity? You might think at first of the document that holds your name and date of birth. Perhaps it is a driver’s license, or the ID card that was issued to you when you turned 16. It could be the passport that you need to remember before catching a flight. Alternatively, you might think that your identity is based on your interests, skills, gender, or ethnicity. You might think of it as being rather fixed and stable and, therefore, you might take it for granted.

But have you ever lost your ID or had your passport stolen while traveling abroad? Suddenly, it becomes impossible to do even the simplest things, such as booking a hotel room, renting a car, or even buying a mobile SIM card to contact your family.

Losing a passport does not necessarily make you question who you are, but it certainly deprives you of the possibility of proving it. This is the everyday reality of over 1 billion people globally who do not have any official identity.
What gives a piece of paper such power over our lives? How did we arrive at a political and social situation where our worth is determined not by who we are but by the type of paper we hold?

The idea of a worldwide passport as we understand it today emerged in the aftermath of World War One, particularly after the Paris Peace Conference, and as a step taken by the League of Nations towards maintaining peace.

An early Nansen passport, issued by the League of Nations in the aftermath of World War One

At the end of the war, the world was in disarray: many governments were toppled or fell, and borders were changed
In our current reality, citizenship is an accident of birth, defined by borders that were drawn years ago by people who in most cases knew very little (geographically and culturally) about the regions they were splicing into self-contained nation-states.

The passport that you hold can be a shield and a privilege if it belongs to a wealthy democracy, and it can be a distress and a burden if it belongs to a poor or politically conflicted country.

The world is changing faster than ever, and it seems clear that identity, citizenship, and the nature of our passports should evolve along with it.

As a concept, digital identity can extend far beyond the limits imposed by a passport. It has the potential to become a new basis for conferring the status of global citizenship onto the individual, independent of their nationality.

A digital identity could allow for participation in global processes of democratic discourse and will-formation, which are needed for the regulation of global challenges.

A normative framework for the operation of a globally free internet and communication system is only one of these challenges. Others are climate change, frameworks for sustainable international trade, global financial markets, and the fight against terrorism and organized crime.

Our present democratic systems at the national and supra-national level are unable to meet these challenges. Even international cooperation fails to produce the necessary effective regulation.

As a concept, digital identity has the potential to become a new basis for conferring the status of global citizenship onto the individual.

As Jürgen Habermas explains, the establishment of regulatory power beyond the state is not so much a challenge to democracy but rather, in and of itself, a requirement of it.

Digital identity and global citizenship — as doors to participation in democratic decision-making processes at the global level — do not substitute the citizenship of a state, and nor does an institutional setting for global regulation substitute the state.

A 1944 passport belonging to a UN official, closely resembling modern-day passports

Instead, these initiatives are additional and complementary to national citizenship and the state — though the alternative system they represent may offer the establishment of digital identity, registration, and the operation of global citizenship independently of a particular nation-state. Precisely such a system is the basis for conceptualizing democratically legitimized regulation, as is needed to meet global challenges effectively.

Global constitutionalism built upon these insights could become a realistic utopia, if it is coupled with the new opportunities offered by the internet. The task now is to explore how technologies can democratize processes effectively at the global level.

Digital identity is foundational to other services. Using the principle of selective disclosure, the individual is able to pair whatever record they have of themselves with whatever organization they desire. The given organization does not need to know whether someone is a ‘refugee’ or not — the individual is in control of who they are.

Digital self-sovereignty allows the individual to become ‘the center of the universe’, so to speak, in terms of determining what they want to share about themselves, and via what method.

Could the individual enabled with technology have digital safe boxes for their documentation, which could be digitally notarized in near-real time? Rather than the ‘centralization of data’, which is often vulnerable to hacking and/or abuse, should we not be thinking about hybrid models, where the ownership of information is more dispersed?

Imagine a world in which everyone is in control of their digital identity and, thus, of their future. Is there a better way?

Register to receive the digital version of each edition of the Global Citizenship Review