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UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy


Applied in Focus. Global in Reach


Responsible Governance of Digital Identity

By nishant.anand.19, on 28 July 2020

Digital Technology & Society

Our lives are increasingly spent with or around digital technologies. We use these technologies to work, interact with friends, institutions, government and the world around us. Digital technologies are not just a conduit for interactions, increasingly our sense of being is also intertwined with these systems. We use these technologies to project our image to the world, to build professional identity and to engage with communities that we identify with. Such technologies also provide institutions with a new level of intimacy with the people they serve and the promise of being able to provide tailored services efficiently and effectively.

Nishant Anand

Nishant Anand

Yet using such technologies comes with consequences. What would have been ephemeral conversations are now recorded, archived and made searchable. Our interactions through digital technologies are logged and analysed to provide more tailored services or predict future actions. The proliferation of digital technologies has led to concerns around surveillance, privacy infringement and a loss of autonomy.

Our digital identities are the lynchpin between our offline and online presence. Digital identities provide a means for us to develop our presence on global platforms and expand our horizons of interaction beyond what is possible in the offline world. Yet digital identity infrastructure is also what makes us recognisable, trackable and vulnerable to surveillance. Socio-technical systems that use identity technologies have a disproportionate amount of power and information over an individual user. There is a dichotomy here – the individuals’ need to control their identities and personas and the institutional need to govern efficiently and effectively. These contrasting incentives can lead to perverse outcomes and dissent.

Our increasing reliance on digital technologies and services delivered through them isn’t a good or bad thing per se. However, the use of such technologies require a new relationship between the stakeholders involved and mechanisms for governance that take into account the various diverse incentives at play. 

My Research Focus

Often the conversation focuses on actions of large platforms (like Facebook) or large institutions (like national governments). Yet such systems are used across various contexts. For example – new health and wellness products track and advise on individual nutritional habits. Local governments and developmental sector participants provide smart cards to vulnerable individuals creating a log of the subsidies they have consumed. New models for online identity verification are being provided through privatised blockchain based technologies. We can only assume that new digital identity innovations – technical or business model based – will continue to proliferate.

So the question that I am looking to answer focusses on what mechanisms can be developed or are being used to govern digital identity based systems “responsibly”. Responsibility is a forward looking word; it isn’t just about mitigating the risks of today but also working on addressing issues of the future, as digital identity systems proliferate across context, continent and scale. This also requires an understanding of how responsive such systems are to changes in stakeholder preferences and how they foster stakeholder trust.

Through my research I aim to identify the various mechanisms that are being deployed to manage digital ID based systems. Such mechanisms can be technical, legislative or “softer” approaches to governance.  As the issue is interdisciplinary, my approach to it will be so as well. Responsible innovation, adaptive governance, digital systems architecture as well as digital sociology provide a vast body of literature that inform my research. Being at STEaPP and UCL overall provides me the ability to look across such vast and exciting disciplines of work. It allows me to bridge the chasm between policy and governance and technical implications.

Nishant Anand is a first year PhD student at UCL STEaPP. He is also a member of the Digital Technologies Policy Lab. Follow him on twitter (@N_Anand).

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