Digital Foundational Identities using Mobile Technology

November 29, 2017 | Digital Identity | Global | Samantha Lynch

According to the World Bank, a digital foundational identity is one that is “built in a top-down manner with the objective of bolstering national development by creating a general-purpose identification for use across sectors”.  What does this mean though in practical terms and how can innovations in technology, particularly advances in mobile technology, be used to deliver these forms of digital identities?


What is a foundational Identity?

Before we look at examples of these types of identity, it is important to define what the typical characteristics of these types of identity are.  Foundational identities, which can often also be legal identities, tend to be built with the wider national population in mind.  As a result, they are generally universally available to citizens and used for multiple purposes.  Consequently, providers of such identities are typically national governments who are interested in providing a means for their citizens to prove who they are, for example through civil registries, identity cards, passports or birth certificates.


How are foundational identities issued?

The requirements necessary to obtain a foundational identity will depend on the requirements of individual governments and the type of identity being requested.

  • Civil registries – are records which are generally managed by national or local government and record the vital information for a country’s citizens (such as first name, surname and date of birth). These Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CVRS) systems can range from local basic paper-based ledger systems to sophisticated computerised national systems. Registration takes the form of an individual providing details to an authorised government office either physically through paper-based forms or online.


  • Identity cards – foundational identity cards (as opposed to functional identity cards such as ‘proof of age’ identity cards) tend to be issued by national governments or law enforcement agencies and thus are widely recognised as a ‘legal’ form of identity that a citizen can carry with them to prove their identity.  Depending on whether they are mandated or not will depend on whether they are automatically issued by governments to registered citizens of a certain age or if citizen’s need to request them.


  • Passports – are legal government documents that are issued by the State Department to its nationals to enable them to prove their identity outside of their nation for the purposes of travel. Typically only citizens who tend to travel abroad apply for these due to the high cost to obtain one.


  • Certificates – legal certificates such as birth, marriage and death certificates fall into the domain of civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS) and are issued to country’s citizens as proof of a life event taking place. In order to obtain these certificates, details must previously have been registered in a civil registry.


For each of these types of identities, there will be different steps (and often payments) to be made depending on country practices.  For example, whilst an initial birth registration is free, the resulting certificate proving the birth has taken place is not always provided free of charge.  However, for all of these identities, a proof of identity will be needed, even if in the case of the birth certificate it is the parents’ proof of identity that is required.  Yet for the 1.1 billion people who lack an identity, the process to obtain these types of identities can seem too complicated or the costs too high, additionally there is often a lack in understanding of the benefits having such a proof of identity can bring.


How is technology improving access to foundational identities?

One of the great benefits in advances in technology has been new ways to leapfrog traditional paper-based foundational identity systems, particularly in developing countries, and make it easier and simpler for all citizens to obtain these important types of identity.

  • Civil registries – many countries are digitising their Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS) systems and moving towards computerised databases for the collection and storing of information.


  • Identity cards – as well as digitising CRVS systems, countries are increasingly moving towards electronic identity cards, such as Albania and South Africa, which either store biometric information or can be scanned to provide further authenticating information.


  • Passports – even passports have moved into the digital age with the introduction of e-passports, machine-readable passports that contain an embedded chip which stores details of the holder as well as their biometric information.


  • Certificates –a number of countries, such as Chile and Costa Rica, are moving away from paper-based certificates, which can be easily damaged and lost, towards digital certificates.


Where has mobile technology been used?

As mentioned in my previous blog, mobile technology has the potential to achieve full coverage when considering national identity schemes, reaching communities that have traditionally found it too difficult to obtain a foundational identity.  Even those countries which are more technologically advanced are looking to mobile technology to offer enhanced services to citizens.  A few examples are:

Aadhaar, India’s National Identity Programme  – residents of India can enrol in the Aadhaar programme and receive a 12-digit Aadhaar number.  This number can be used to access social payments, and mobile technology is being used to biometrically verify eligible recipients for government subsidies and ensure payments are made to the correct persons.

Estonia’s eID and mobile ID – in the late ‘90s Estonia moved towards a digital society, starting with offering e-Governance in 1997 and moving towards an e-ID (electronic Identity) system.  Estonia additionally offers Mobile-ID which allows residents to use a mobile phone as a form of secure digital ID – enabling residents to access e-services and digitally sign documents via a special SIM card.

Birth Registration

  • Burkina Faso – newborn babies are given hospital bracelets with a QR code that is scanned via a mobile app, where registration details for the baby are also entered. The information is then sent to a server for creation of a birth certificate with corresponding QR code. The technology has already improved birth registration rates of traditionally ‘ghost children’, those that are not typically registered.
  • Indonesia – a mobile app is being trialled to register births and trigger the creation of a national identity card number as well as a birth certificate, to increase birth registration rates.
  • Pakistan – a mobile app is being piloted to report births to local government, resulting in significant improvements in birth registration rates, particularly amongst girls.
  • Sub-Saharan Africa – in Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Tanzania, and Uganda mobile technology is being used to register births of babies and improve birth registration rates.


Some future mobile initiatives to look out for

Digital Certificates – a number of countries, such as Costa Rica and India, are already moving towards digital birth, marriage and death certificates.  The next logical step will be to have verified copies of these types of certificates available via mobile phones.

Mobile Connect – Enables simplified registration and authentication for citizens via mobile phone for eGovernment services.

Mobile Digital Identity – Singapore is looking to upgrade it’s national ID card to take advantage of mobile technology to improve security and access to government services.

Paperless passports – De La Rue, who amongst other things produce passports, is currently exploring the use of smartphones to securely store passport information and thus eliminate the need for physical passports.


This initiative is currently funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), and supported by the GSMA and its members.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *