Using Mobile Technology to provide Functional Identities

January 22, 2018 | Digital Identity | Samantha Lynch

The World Bank defines digital functional identities as those that “evolve out of a single use-case, such as voter ID, health records, or bank cards, and have the potential for use across sectors.” This means that these types of IDs are created with a specific purpose in mind, differing from foundational IDs which are created with a general purpose in mind.  They also differ from foundational IDs in that both government and non-government players, such as NGOs and private organisations, can offer them.



What is required to obtain a functional identity?

As there are many different types of functional identities created for many different purposes, the requirements necessary to obtain one of these types of identities will vary depending on the end purpose and who is providing the identity.  For example, the requirements for each of the below identities are:

Health records – health records are typically patient records held by hospitals and medical centres.  Depending on the type of hospital, private vs state, rural vs municipal, it may be necessary to provide a legally recognised proof of identity at the time of registration, or it may be enough just to provide patient details verbally without verified proofs.

Tax identity – tax identities are typically numbers assigned by a country’s tax office to citizens and residents of a country for the purposes of payment of personal tax liabilities.  As a result proof of identity requirements are more stringent and at a minimum a legally recognised proof of identity, such as a birth certificate, would be required.

Bank cards – bank cards are linked to bank accounts and issued by commercial banks.  Because financial regulation requirements tend to be more stringent, a legal proof of identity is mandatory, and additional legal and non-legal proofs of identity may also be required.

Mobile identity – a mobile identity is linked to a mobile phone number which is issued by mobile operators.  Depending on country requirements it can be easily accessible through the purchase of an unregistered SIM card, or quite restrictive in countries where mandatory SIM registration is required.  In the former case no proof of identity is required, however, in the latter case a pre-defined proof of identity (which is country specific) is required at the point of registration.

Voter ID card – voter ID cards or numbers are issued to citizens by a country’s electorate body for the purpose of proving eligibility to vote.  Proof of identity is usually required to prove eligibility and prevent duplication of names on electoral registers, however, this can range from a simple letter of introduction from a village chief to an official identity document such as a passport.

Proof of age/non-official ID card – these tend to be identity cards provided by recognised private companies as an alternative to legal identities, typically in countries where there is no requirement or provision for national ID cards and where there may be a requirement to prove age (e.g. for the purchase of alcohol).  Some form of legal proof of identity, such as a birth certificate, plus often an additional verification of identity, such as a signed declaration from a witness, is usually required.  The acceptance and confidence in the identity will depend on the perceived integrity of the identity verification process.

Insurance records – insurance records relating to health, life, business, home, etc. are generally subject to additional information and legal proof of identity being provided, for example a driver’s licence is necessary to obtain car insurance.  However, once there is a record of insurance, that in itself can act as a form of identity to obtain further insurance.

In each of the examples above some form of identity is required, often a foundational identity such as a birth certificate, in order to obtain the functional identity. However, the World Bank estimates that there are currently 1.1 billion people worldwide, primarily in developing countries, who are unable to prove their identity thus preventing them from accessing many life-enhancing services.  Without a foundational identity, it is typically much harder to obtain a functional identity.  Luckily, there are an increasing number of companies who are focusing on this problem and finding innovative ways to work around the issues affecting those without proof of identity.


How is mobile technology being used to provide functional identities in developing countries?

In many countries, operators are uniquely positioned to assist with the provision of innovative uses of mobile technology to improve upon traditional methods of obtaining functional identities.  Below are some examples where mobile technology is being exploited to meet digital functional identity needs.

Health  – The availability of vaccinations in the developed world is taken for granted, yet according to the WHO approximately 1 in 10 infants in 2016 were not vaccinated.  Khushi Baby works to address this problem via an NFC pendant and a smartphone app, helping health workers to keep track of babies health records and immunization status.  Another company, Element, have developed a software solution which uses mobile phones and deep learning to biometrically scan infants and children to identify them for health purposes.

Welfare payments – In Bangladesh a new system – established by Bangladesh’s public sector innovation agency, Bangladesh Bank, and bKash – is being introduced which will allow citizens to receive welfare payments via mobile phones once citizens have registered with their biometric data.  In Iraq, Zain Cash is using UNHCR identification records to create mobile money accounts for refugees and forcibly displaced persons (FDPs) to receive cash disbursements. While in Kenya a collaboration between Safaricom and WFP, Bamba Chakula, permits electronic food vouchers to be delivered to mobile phones for refugees.  Finally, in Lebanon AID:Tech is using blockchain to create digital identity cards with QR codes which can then be scanned via a mobile phone app at participating food stores enabling refugees to receive food aid.

Financial inclusion – Approximately two billion people globally in 2014 were unbanked.  Many of those will also have no legal proof of identity, compounding their difficulty to obtain access to affordable financial services.  However, there are a number of companies, such as Juvo, and Tala, that use a smartphone app to build a ‘financial identity’ and credit score individuals in order to offer them financial services. Others mobile apps such as Taqanu, who are targeting refugees and FDPs, or BanQu, who are targeting the unbanked, are using blockchain technology to create financial identities for those lacking proof of identity.

Official functional identities – In Malaysia, the UNHCR biometric ID card issued to refugees was launched alongside the VERIFY-MY app which allows authorities to verify the authenticity of the UNHCR card via a smartphone.

Non-official functional identities/Know your customer (KYC) – There are a number of companies working on solutions to identify those without proof of identity to offer them access to services.  One such company is Simprints, who combine a handheld fingerprint scanner with a mobile app to register individuals and create functional identities.  Another company Gravity uses blockchain technology to create and verify identities of mobile phone users.


These are but a few of the solutions that are being developed currently, but new and exciting solutions continue to emerge and we will continue to track these new solutions and update our blog and case studies with further details.


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

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