Openness in Latin America and the problem of identification

New information and communication technologies promise an era of unprecedented change for developing countries, particularly in terms of how they can open up new channels of connectivity and organization amongst individuals, civil society, businesses, and governments. Not a week goes by without the media reporting on these changes, including the positive role that services such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter are playing in organizing the masses, exposing misdeeds, shedding light on abuses of power, and holding wrongdoers to account. However, harnessing the power afforded by the Internet and new technologies such as Web 2.0 to positively impact the development goals of openness, collaboration, and participation will require identity infrastructures which, to date, do not exist in most countries.

It is a political reality that, in the long term, governments will be unwilling to open up and allow citizens to participate and organize fully online without some level of assurance about who is accessing certain data or services, or saying what to whom. For example, South Korea recently changed its laws to require users to provide their real name and national ID card number before posting videos or comments on most websites. The Obama Administration in the United States has also pointed to the importance of identity management in its cyberspace policies (United States Executive Office of the President 2009, pp. 33-34). As governments grapple to regulate the Internet, these trends are likely to continue. Such developments introduce difficult questions about the prospects for freedom of expression and, thus, any discussion about 'openness for development' must entertain questions about identification, anonymity, and privacy online.

Identity has been described as "the new money" (Crosby 2008) and so the perceived need to control it grows increasingly urgent. In response to this urgency, both developed and developing countries have shown interest in government-managed identity systems to enable public service delivery and citizen interaction and participation online. However, with these new identity systems comes the real potential for surveillance of people's activities, privacy infringements, and discrimination. Here we get a glimpse of the dark side of openness: governments feel they must collect, store, process, and share personal information about citizens if they choose to engage in these ICT-enabled environments.

Based in the development context of Latin America, the aim of this paper is twofold: to address the possible downsides and risks of identity systems in enabling openness; and to advance towards practical suggestions on how to mitigate them. It begins by reviewing the current state of identity systems throughout Latin America, noting a general interest in new identity systems based on digital technologies such as smart cards, radio frequency identification, and biometrics. We then argue that programmes that encourage openness, access, participation, and collaboration in such countries need to take very seriously questions related to citizen privacy and surveillance. We end with practical suggestions on how to design identity management systems that enable openness and participation whilst mitigating possible negative social, political, and cultural effects.

Authors: Aaron K Martin, Carla Bonina & Sofía Goldchluk

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