Thursday, 3 September 2020

Digital ID, Global Resilience, and Human Dignity

By Dirk Helbinga and Peter Seeleb

a Computational Social Science, ETH Z├╝rich, Switzerland 

b Business Ethics, USI Lugano, Switzerland

Providing a legal ID for every person on this planet has been proposed to create legal clarity, particularly in disenfranchised settings. Currently several high-level initiatives seem to be underway, for example, by the alliance and possibly the WEF’s mass surveillance based Global Centre for Cybersecurity,[1] which include some of the most powerful transnational organizations and corporations. Also, with the Sustainable Development Goal 16-9, the UN promotes a legal identity for all people on this planet and “digital identity credentials” as part of their “United Nations Legal Identity Agenda 2020-2030”.[2] Such ideas are quickly becoming reality: China’s Social Credit Score, for example, makes use of digital IDs. In global e-commerce, the digital ID is assigned to personal scores such as the ‘lifetime customer value’, which is being used to calculate the profitability of a person. Also, the UN has launched some pilot projects, where digital IDs are used for refugee identification.[3]

Technically, the digital ID can be implemented with biometric approaches such as face recognition, voice or gesture monitoring, blockchain-based technologies, digital tattoos, or in-body solutions. Faced with COVID-19 and in view of a “jackpot market” of 8 billion people, proponents now see a once in a century opportunity. It seems timely to demand a digital ID, immunity passes, etc. With the possibility to establish an Internet of Bodies (IoB),[4] the technology is here, but depending on its use, it could easily turn into a crime against humanity.

Once a digital ID officially exists, humans could be managed like things. This, however, would fundamentally violate human dignity and contradict the UN Human Rights Charter. Such measures remind of chipped pets or tattoos to mark inmates – and some of the darkest chapters in human history.

From what we know, COVID-19 does not threaten the overall survival of the human species. Nevertheless, the counter-measures have heavily disrupted societies. Digital IDs to control the spread of the virus and to supervise vaccination strategies is often framed as adequate and necessary in chaotic times.[5] However, applying the same mandatory technology to all humans would not only be totalitarian. “In-body solutions” (such as RFID chips or individualized vaccines[6]) would also imply considerable health risks.[7]  Side effects would be known only with delay, and in case of global deployment, hundreds of millions of people might be affected by them. The societal side effects, e.g. implications for democracies and human rights, could be massive, particularly if coupled with the power of a data-driven and AI-controlled approach.

Some years ago, people got excited about Chris Anderson’s dream,[8] according to which Big Data would make the scientific method obsolete. Recently, however, COVID-19 has put Big Data and AI to the test. Here are some of the lessons learned:

(1)Poor measurement procedures: False positives[9] and overlooked cases as well as non-representative data samples have been an issue both with common COVID-19 tests and with reported deaths. These numbers had to be corrected repeatedly in various countries.

(2)Poor predictions: Projections of the number of infected people have been surprisingly unreliable. This is for various reasons: first, for a lack of data in the early stage of disease spreading, second, for the fact that saturation effects and turning points become evident only with later data points, and third, for changes in behavior that have a massive impact on the spreading dynamics and its outcome.

(3)Poor classification: The use of contact tracing to identify infected people has delivered erroneous results in many cases. In some countries, counter-terrorism tools based on sensitive personal surveillance data of the entire population have been used.[10] However, it ended with thousands of healthy people mistakenly put under quarantine.[11]

In conclusion, Big Data is no panacea. The vision of a data-driven and AI-controlled society has serious limitations. Therefore, we should pay more attention to concepts such as participatory resilience.[12] This means to provide people with tools that help them help themselves and support each other. The digital revolution certainly offers breakthrough technology in this direction. It can support decisions, coordination, and collective intelligence.[13] In this way, we can prepare society to cope with future surprises to come.     

Global resilience is better reached by digitally empowering responsible behavior, based on decentralized, diverse, participatory approaches. Such digital assistance would also be in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. To reach them, we need a combination of competition and cooperation, of intelligent design and combinatorial innovation. Therefore, the open data and maker movement should be scaled up to formats that can unleash mass innovation and connective action. Rather than submitting people to a data-driven and AI-controlled system, we should create innovative frameworks such as City Olympics,[14] City Challenges[15] or City Cups.[16] Such collaborative approaches could largely contribute to accomplishing humanity’s goals, based on the power of civil society – rather than on citizen surveillance and control through digital IDs.

A edited version of this blog was published at Project Syndicate.

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