Increasingly, governments, corporations, international organizations, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are seeking to use digital technologies to track the identities of migrants and refugees. This surging interest in digital identity technologies would seem to meet a pressing need: the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) states that in today’s modern world, lacking proof of identity can limit a person’s access to services and socio-economic participation, including employment opportunities, housing, a mobile phone, and a bank account. But this report argues that the technologies and processes involved in digital identity will not provide easy solutions in the migration and refugee context. Technologies that rely on identity data introduce a new sociotechnical layer that may exacerbate existing biases, discrimination, or power imbalances.
How can we weigh the added value of digital identification systems against the potential risks and harms to migrant safety and fundamental human rights? This report provides international organizations, policymakers, civil society, technologists, and funders with a deeper background on what we currently know about digital identity and how migrant identity data is situated in the Italian context. Key findings and recommendations include:
- Migrants exchange identity data for resources without meaningful consent. Privacy, informed consent, and data protection are compromised throughout the process of migrant and refugee identification.
- Systemic bureaucratic biases present obstacles that would likely impede the fair development and integration of digital identity systems.
- Trust is lacking in the sociotechnical systems that are intertwined with identity. Cultural mediators can be uniquely positioned in the system to build trust and literacy around privacy rights and informed consent. Moreover, if NGOs collecting identity data obtain the capacity and literacy, they can become ready access points to bolster data protection for migrant and refugee beneficiaries.
- Urgent open questions remain to be explored before new digital identity systems are imposed in the current migration context. Without a stronger evidence base and the appropriate safeguards in place, new digital identity systems are likely to amplify risks and harms in lives of vulnerable and marginalized populations in Italy and elsewhere.
Additionally, we identify three major thematic areas of concern involved with the data collection from and processing of migrants and refugees in Italy:
- Bureaucratic bias in identity systems—this includes concerns about the classification of vulnerable communities and the inconsistent collection of migrants’ identity information.
- Privacy and mistrusted systems—this includes the difficulties in getting informed consent when collecting migrants’ data, as well as migrants’ understanding of privacy, the consequences of system avoidance, and the role of trusted intermediaries, such as cultural mediators.
- Organizational data responsibility—including how different organizations navigate their own understanding of privacy rights and data security practices.
In the current political climate in Italy and other European Union (EU) countries, the addition of new digital identity systems promising the efficient implementation of existing policy is not an adequate response. What is needed now is a policy-relevant knowledge base about the realities of bureaucratic and technical harms, the difficulties of maintaining privacy and obtaining meaningful informed consent, and the challenges of protecting identity data for all actors in the ecosystem. Officials and stakeholders can use this knowledge to ensure the proper technical and policy safeguards are in place before digital identity systems are developed, deployed, and integrated. Only then can we realize the benefits of trusted sociotechnical systems while also protecting the fundamental rights of vulnerable and marginalized populations.