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Aid Evolved Podcast: The Promise and Peril of Digital Biometrics

By Rowena Luk on July 3, 2021

biometrics podcast

Aid, Evolved is a podcast about technology, poverty, and health. Every two weeks we’ll bring you a new episode about doing good, better. We’ll hear first-hand accounts from the lives of innovators, non-profits, social enterprises, and donors. As we chat through their hopes and fears, their struggles and triumphs, our goal will be to draw out the lessons learned that can guide future work in this sector.

A Conversation with Sebastian Manhart

In this episode, I speak with Sebastian Manhart, who recently concluded his time as COO of Simprints, the world’s only nonprofit biometrics company focused on the last mile. He now works as an Advisor on Digital Identity for the German Federal Chancellery, the World Bank, and ID2020.

Sebastian shares the tense moments which emerged for him as he was caught in the polarizing debate around biometrics. He outlines the human rights risks posed by this technology, as well as the concerning influence of private sector biometrics corporations in aid work. He also points to one promising option for the future, which might capture the benefits of universal digital identification while avoiding the risks: self-sovereign identity. 

The Polarizing Debate around Biometrics

This is an excerpt from our conversation. Listen to it all here.

Rowena:  In your work with Simprints, were there any moments where you faced an ethical dilemma? Where you had to navigate some of the ethical issues that arise in biometrics and digital ID?

Sebastian: Yes. This is a topic very close to my heart. At Simprints, I was in charge of our privacy section for five years and it’s something that I’m very passionate about.

What’s  really tough about biometrics and unique ID is how polarizing it is and how strong the feelings it evokes in people. And this has led to some very difficult confrontations at times.

I’ll never forget…  You know we are this nonprofit biometrics company trying to not just do things well, but also drive the whole biometrics sector slowly in the direction of better standards and better practices. And even I, I got yelled at on stage.

Rowena:  Really?

Sebastian:  Yeah, because as soon as you talk about it… and I understand where people are coming from, don’t get me wrong. When you talk about collecting highly sensitive data, which biometrics is, from very vulnerable people in very volatile environments, I totally understand where people are coming from. There needs to be a cost benefit analysis done on a case by case basis that justifies it.

And that’s why you need an ethical company. Requests were turned down, by Simprints, because they just didn’t fit the bill. The risks were just not justifying the use of biometrics.

For me, it was tough to see that even us, even we were getting challenged in such an aggressive, emotional way in the media on stage.

Rowena: That’s rough.

Biometrics Come with Real Risks

Rowena: To unpack this particular conflict for our audience, let’s imagine a scenario: you’re working with a woman in Bangladesh, a mother who’s getting food aid, and you want to register her on a Simprints biometric device so that she can get that aid. That sounds innocuous. Why are these people yelling at you for trying to track this woman, trying to get her aid?

Sebastian: Identity has been used historically to commit atrocious crimes. Starting with genocide against the Jews in Germany, then in Rwanda 1994, now huge concerns around what would happen if the Rohingya had to go back to to Myanmar and the Myanmar government or military could suddenly use highly, much more effective unique identifiers to track them down. I understand where people are coming from. These are serious concerns,

Which is why when somebody collects biometrics, I think the question of what happens to that biometric image or record is the right question. Who gets access to it? Will it be shared? How is it stored? How is it encrypted? Was consent given?

These are exactly the right questions and in many programs, this is not adequately addressed. So I think a genuine skepticism towards the use of biometrics in international development is actually the right approach.

Rowena:  That makes sense.

Sebastian:  But then also it needs to go hand in hand with an openness towards solutions that are more ethical and are trying to do it the right way. Because if you do it the right way, I do think the benefits that we can talk about clearly outweigh the danger.

Risks of private biometrics in the aid sector

Rowena: Obviously, Simprints itself as a social organization has a strong ethical mandate and has lots of materials out there already about its ethical approach to ID. And as these markets grow, as there’s more wealth  in India and more wealth in Africa, do you think there’s a possibility for another organization that’s less ethical than Simprints to come in and take a less ethical approach in manufacturing biometric scanners?

Sebastian:  Yes. And that is already happening.

By the way, I should be clear that I spoke about the scanners because that was the early days. The biometrics industry as a whole, including Simprints, is moving towards software based biometric solutions: smartphone camera based solutions.

Rowena:  That makes sense, particularly with COVID-19!

Sebastian:  Exactly.

So you’re seeing it already. The area that the private sector has already been quite involved in is humanitarian aid.

Especially if you think about the World Food Program, if you think about UNHCR, they’ve already worked with major for-profit biometrics companies for over a decade because the market was already profitable enough for these companies to do so.

Now, the interesting  thing is they’re moving into global health and that’s that’s a first. And that’s because of COVID-19.

So suddenly massive budgets were released that made it appealing for conventional biometric organizations and also identity organizations like Mastercard to move into what was historically a sector that they would stay clear of. And so, yeah, we’re seeing a lot of organizations coming in here, starting with higher profit use cases such as COVID-19, health insurance, etc. But there’s nothing preventing them from at some point also moving into routine health delivery.

And that is concerning.

Balancing Institutional Needs vs Individual Rights

Rowena: One thing that I haven’t quite seen play out, and I’m curious to hear how you’ve seen this go: when I look at ID2020 and some of its principles, there’s this business of digital identity being personal, it should be owned by each individual. They control it. But a lot of the positive use cases for digital identity include government or aid-run programs – for aid distribution, for relief, etc. How does one balance this? On the one hand, this pillar of personal identity vs. a government database that will actually meaningfully use this data to aggregate millions of people in a country?

Sebastian:  Yeah, and there’s something I’m incredibly passionate about. In fact, my role in the German chancellery is to work on what is called self sovereign identity. It’s exactly what you’re talking about. Let me quickly explain,

Rowena:  I’m so curious.

Sebastian: Context: I think today we live in, frankly, a data anarchy. Like we spent the last 20 years, especially  in Europe, the Western Hemisphere, giving away data with no idea of what the hell is going to happen with that data. And businesses have created unicorns by taking advantage of that.

I don’t think we can go on this path further. It’s not in our interests and it’s led to so many problems, including manipulation of elections and tons of other societal issues.

Rowena:  Yeah, I mean, it’s crazy, it’s completely unregulated, the way that these international tech companies work beyond country borders… and they’re bigger and more powerful than many countries, which is insane to imagine what they’re going to do.

Sebastian:  Completely.

And so I think Europe is interesting. These companies – we know who they are – are not based in Europe.

And Europe is taking a very strong – and I think progressive and desirable – position towards both antitrust cases, but also, frankly, towards regulation and data.

And when it comes back to digital identity, there is a very clear path that I believe we have to take in the future. And that’s a path towards self managed or so-called self sovereign identity where individuals manage all their identity data.

And what does that mean? That means your driving license, your passport, but that also means your banking I.D., your Amazon I.D., your Facebook I.D., your gym I.D., whatever it is, all these IDs need to be fully under your control. In a very safe, encrypted place.

Whoever wants to have any access to any of that data at any point needs to get your consent explicitly every time for each piece of data.

SSI – self-sovereign identity – has been around for around three or four years. And Germany,  interestingly, is the first country in the world where the chancellor, the head of state, is saying, this is what we’re doing in our whole country.

Rowena:  Oh, fascinating.

Sebastian:  That’s why I joined this project, because for me, it’s completely mind-blowing that finally a head of state is saying, OK, we need to do something about this and it’s the future.

Rowena:  And you could set an example for other countries to follow, which would be incredible.

Sebastian:  Exactly.

Also, think about it from a security perspective, there’s so many privacy breaches all the time that you lose track of it. Because so-called honeypots are created of data, where if a hacker gets in, they can suddenly have access to tens of thousands and millions of pieces of data in one go.

What happens with SSI, is if you have a phone, you only get access to the information that is stored locally on a single phone [not the honeypot]. You reduce the appeal for hacking massively. So there’s a lot of benefits to SSI.

But one reality is that this future of identity, which I’m now working on, which I’m incredibly passionate about, does require smartphones and people who own their own smartphone. And in our sector, we are a long way away from having widespread access to smartphones.

Rowena:  But it’s changing.

Sebastian:  It is changing. What we’re doing in Germany now, for example, in Europe, I think will happen in many places in 5, 10 or 20 years. So leading the way now is going to have a powerful impact on the sector in a couple of years.

But for now, when we talk about digital identity in aid, in development, it still relies heavily on centralized, government-led identity, which has massive issues. And I’m quite worried about it… but I still think that there’s not really an alternative in many places. And we still need to get identity right.

To Hear More

To hear more from Sebastian, including the early years of trying to sell foam prototypes while Simprints was still building their fingerprint scanners, and the history and controversies of biometrics in the aid sector, listen to the full conversation on Aid, Evolved or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Written by
Rowena Luk has spent over a decade deploying technologies, building organizations, and conducting research in digital development in over 18 countries around the world, primarily in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. She also hosts the Aid, Evolved podcast. The views expressed in these conversations belong to the respective speakers. They do not reflect the position of any organization.
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