Doing Digital Identities

Project: Research

Project participants

  • The European Research Council


This ERC-funded, five-year project is concerned with the ongoing shift towards digital identification devices which is implemented by government institutions and international organisations in many countries around the world. This shift constitutes the most significant change in statist identification practices since the consolidation of the international passport regime in the 19th century. Digital ID devices like electronic ID cards providing access to government services via PINs, biometric databases, and blockchain-secured digital identity wallets are increasingly complementing, or even replacing, paper-based means of identification.

Yet so far, the implications of digital ID devices have mostly been studied in relation to criminal suspects and migrant ‘others’, not the normalized majority of citizens. This project uses this unique moment of change to assess how material citizenship—i.e., the technologies and infrastructures used to enact citizenship as a political subjectivity and a formal relation to the state—is reshaped in the digital age. Its principal research question is: How does the digitization of identification practices reconfigure relations between citizens and state authorities?

The project investigates transformations of citizen-state relations through digital ID devices at three sites: birth registration, citizen-government transactions, and border controls. Theoretically, the project draws on citizenship studies, science and technology (STS) and data studies to propose a conception of material citizenship as performative and sociotechnical and to advance a research agenda that focuses on the practical, epistemic, political, and ethical implications of digital identification. Methodologically, the project combines multi-sited ethnographies, textual analysis, and mapping to study the design, implementation, and use of digital ID devices in one international and five national case studies (see the brief descriptions below). In this way, DigID sheds light on the much-neglected material dimension of citizenship and shows how digital ID devices reshape the lived experience of citizenship—understood as a legal status, a form of membership in a political community, and a set of bottom-up practices for enacting social and political rights.

A team of five researchers (besides the PI, 2 Post-docs and 2 PhD-students) will engage with these questions through multi-sited, collaborative research in five national and one international case study. Each of the five country case studies is unique but is also indicative of partular larger developments and transformations in regards to the digitalization of statist identification practices.

Estonia: The Baltic country is often cited as an example to follow in terms of digital identity and e-government. Today, two-thirds of Estonia’s citizens regularly use their eID-cards to access more than 2000 e-government services.The government continually initates new projects to refine and advance Estonia’s eID infrastructure to maintain Estonia's status as an unchallenged pioneer in terms of digital ID. Estonia’s unique ‘e-residency’ program even makes a range of government services available to non-citizens. The Nordic Institute for Interoperability Solutions (NIIS) develops Estonia’s ‘X-road’ system into a cross-border e-government infrastructure with Finland and other EU member-states, which could evolve into a blueprint for a European Digtial ID Ecosystem.

Germany: As ‘Europe’s economic powerhouse’, Germany promotes EU standards for digital identities to realize the ‘digital single market’. Domestically, the government tries to increase – at times against the resistance of civil society actors – the use of e-government services, for instance through an app to make eID-card functions available on mobile devices. In its IDunion project, the Federal Printing Office develops blockchain-secured digital ID wallets in collaboration with 12 private entities. The federal police advertises, in turn, its EasyPass project as a European solution for automated border controls, while Germany's Chief Information Officer leads a program that aims to develop a ‘European ecosystem for digital identities’.

Indonesia: In Asia, Indonesia is an early adopter of digital ID devices, improving citizen-state transactions in a geographically complex environment. For instance, the country's Population and Civil Registration Agency already began to issue its citizens chip-equipped biometric eID-cards in 2011. To date, it continues to strive for full coverage of its eID-card system, which also plays a key role in ambitious plans to harmonize Indonesia’s fragmented ID program. Meanwhile, the National Team for Accelerated Poverty Reduction (TNP2K) runs pilot projects to improve access to vital social benefits in remote areas via digital ID devices, such as facial recognition and digital ID wallets.

Malawi: Led by the UNDP and support by the World Banks' ID4D initiative, the Malawian government managed to biometrically register 9 million people in the record time of 180 days in 2017 and to issue the same number of national ID-cards in 2018. Widely celebrated as a success story, the country's ambitious registration and identification system is supervised by the newly founded National Registration Bureau (NRB). Since it's existence, a range of private actors and development agencies, such as banks, the NGO GiveDirectly or UNICEF run programs that build on the country new centralised civil registration system. Malawi’s Ministry of Home Affairs tries, in turn, to mobilise the new biometric ID cards for building a digital border management solution.

Sierra Leone: is an important target country of the World Bank’s ID4D initiative in West Africa (World Bank 2016a). Supported by the ID4D initiative, the country's National Civil Registration Authority (NCRA) has implemented a national eID-card program that links multi-modal biometric data with a unique national identity number (NIN). It provides the foundation for the plans of the Directorate of Science, Technology and Innovation (DISTI) to integrate datasets from various government information systems, including voting, tax, social service registers. The eID-card program’s rollout is ongoing and the government aims to achieve a coverage rate of 90% by 2025. The eID-card program is also meant to provide citizens with freedom of movement and access to government services across the 15 member states of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). In addition, through continued efforts by the NGO Plan International, the NCRA tries to increase birth registration rates in remote rural areas with the help of digital mobile devices.