Our digital activity increasingly parallels our real-world activity. Participation in the modern economy, the ability to buy and sell, attain employment, healthcare, social services and more are virtually impossible without a digital identity. In May of 2016, at the United Nations Headquarters in NY, ID2020, an alliance of governments, non-profits, academia, over 150 private sector companies and 11 United Nations agencies collaborated on how to provide a unique digital identity to everyone on the planet.

Most coverage of the ID2020 Alliance focuses on its noble objective to provide digital identities to the over one billion refugees, women, children and others without any form of identification. The message of providing digital identification for this "invisible" portion of the earth's population to enable their participation in society places a human face over the true mission. It also creates a rallying point that this open alliance hopes other entities will, like Microsoft, embrace and become a part of this global effort.

The fundamental mission of creating a universal identification system that incorporates every person on the globe, using modern technology and the support of various governments, financial institutions and more is the goal hidden behind the humanitarian cause.

The ID2020 Alliance and its 2030 goal

According to the Alliance's Governance material "by 2030 it aims to have facilitated the scaling of a safe, verifiable, persistent digital identity system, consistent with the Sustainable Development Goals" agreed upon by the United Nations." It's short-term focus toward that goal is the development and testing of the best technological solutions for digital identity; and working with governments and other entities in their implementation. The focus on the 1.5 billion people without identification is part of that short-term vision.

The long-term vision revolves around the Alliances "Case for Action" which states a convergence of trends provides an unprecedented opportunity to make a coordinated, concerted push towards the goal of universal digital identity. Those trends include political accord among United Nations members, growing global connectivity, emerging technologies and global calls for a new model of identity.

  • Political Unity: In 2015 all United Nations countries made a global commitment to provide legal identity for everyone by 2030.
  • Global connectivity: Smart device proliferation allows new registration methods and enables consistent interaction with identity data.
  • Emerging technology: Block-chain technology, like that used with Bitcoin, and into which Microsoft has invested to create a decentralized id (DID) makes secure and verifiable tech accessible to the masses.
  • New Identity Model: Consumers want a seamless and secure digital experience.

Microsoft, in a recent announcement regarding using blockchain technology for decentralized identification further articulated its support of this initiative stating, "Each of us needs a digital identity we own, one which securely and privately stores all elements of our digital identity."

Microsoft, blockchain and universal ids

In its announcement confirming its position as a founding member of the ID2020 Alliance Microsoft shared that it, developers and Alliance partners would be collaborating on a blockchain-based, open source identity system. This system would allow interoperability of people, apps, products and services across cloud providers, other blockchains and organizations.

Microsoft's goal is to help establish universal and scalable standards for these decentralized digital identities using blockchain technology. In a blockchain information exists as a shared database that is consistently reconciled. Blockchain data doesn't exist in a centralized location but is hosted on millions of computers across the internet. The Alliance is using this secure and virtually "unhackable" system to create a decentralized identity framework for the world's population.

If blockchains sound familiar, they should. Wallet apps like those used to buy things with popular cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are the user interface most people associate with blockchain technology. This technology has secure identity management at its core. It is upon this tech that Microsoft and the Alliance are evolving applications for global identity management.

This is about a global community and economy

Mobile technology is becoming increasingly important as a tool for proof-of-identity in various transaction scenarios including buying and selling merchandise online or in person, using mass transit, opening hotel room doors, participating in amusement parks and much more. Our smartphones are currently the primary portal intricately interweaving our digital identities with our physical world.

Understanding this, the GSMA, an alliance of nearly 800 mobile operators, is seeking to simplify SIM card registration by promoting flexible approaches towards proof-of-identity requirements for forcibly displaced people so they can access mobile services, SIM-based energy services and wallets.

This onboarding of even the disenfranchised onto the digital landscape is paramount to the ID2020 Alliances goal to provide a universally accepted identification system for everyone on the planet. It is important to note this identification system's objective is to create the foundation to unify the world's citizens participation in a global community and universal digital economy. Secure and verifiable identity, as with any digital transaction, is foundational to this vision.

Obvious concerns

The alliance stresses that digital identity is the cornerstone of international development and believes a digital identity should be with a person from birth to death. This objective being pursued by a global collaborative raises many ethical concerns.

As the digital landscape becomes more pervasive, the lines between the physical and real world continue to blur. If the lack of a digital identity under the current paradigm limits participation in the modern economy, the lack of the same under a singular globally recognized system could prevent participation entirely.

If the Alliance's goal is a globally recognized digital identity for everyone from birth to death, will that become a global mandate? How will it be enforced and by whom? What happens to those individuals who are unwilling to participate? Will they be persecuted? And how will the implementation of identification evolve with technology beyond smartphones? Will wearables, implant's like those being used in Swedish subways or some form of digital tattoo become the norm?

As more and more transactions become digital in nature and are built around a single global identification standard, supported by Microsoft, the question of who will govern this evolving global community and economy becomes relevant. Especially since nonparticipants in this system would be unable to buy or sell goods or services.