What is a National Identity?

Today, passports and other forms of national ID might seem ubiquitous to those of us living in a globalised world, where we’re often asked to present some form of valid national ID to confirm “who we are” and “where we are from”. However, this hasn’t always been the case. It is only 500 years ago that King Henry V of England introduced the Safe Conducts Act 1414 which inscribed into law what can be considered the earliest identity document – a passport – which served as a means of helping his subjects “identify” their origin in foreign lands. However, the concept of an identity document didn’t gain traction until after World War I. Photographic identification appeared as early as 1876 but became more widely used only in the 20th century.

Today, most countries around the world issue a formal identity document or card (often credit card sized), which typically includes the bearer’s photograph, personal details such as full name, birth date, address, gender, citizenship and a unique number which can be checked in a database. These cards serve as a means of identifying citizens, as well as permanent and temporary legal residents.

Depending on which part of the world you’re from, documents considered valid as acceptable proof to verify your identity may vary. While passports are mandatory and essential national ID for international travel, within your country’s borders, other forms of ID can be issued by a central or state government authority. For an ID to be considered acceptable, at the very least, it should include the bearer’s full name, date of birth, photo and signature.  Again, this may vary – in Afghanistan, the official identity card – Takzira – does not request for a date of birth, and the absence of birth certificates has only complicated matters. So much so, that a generation of Afghans aren’t aware of their actual birth date and for convenience, have selected January 1st as their birthday.

Acceptable forms of ID include a driver’s licence, voter’s ID, military identification card, citizenship card or resident card. Most such cards have a validity period – as an example a driver’s licence may be issued for a period of 20 years, after which it needs to be renewed. For the identification to be considered valid, it should not have expired.

Some countries like Luxembourg, Panama, and Sri Lanka always expect the bearer to carry the ID card, while others like Germany, Italy, Greece and Netherlands do not. The rules also vary greatly around age of issue and penalties.

National IDs offer definitive advantages to both the nation as well as the bearer, and ease the process of identification of citizens. They facilitate areas such as national security, citizens’ access to benefits, the right to cross borders and protection against fraud. On the other hand, national IDs can represent a risk in relation to potential misuse, concerns around invasion of privacy, not to mention costs associated with issuance.

Since national IDs are so critical to an individual’s status within the state, and the country’s socio-economic system, there is every need to ensure that these IDs are robust and cannot be easily replicated, forged or compromised.

Over the years, technology has and continues to play a key role in securing and validating national ID systems. More and more countries are moving towards electronic and digital IDs, with policy makers and businesses considering the conveniences and how these systems streamline identity setup and validation. But these systems are not without their own risks.

Read the full paper, Documenting National Identities which looks at the cases for and against National IDs, and the role technology plays as the world moves increasingly towards digital ID systems.

About the author

Clare Lamb
By Clare Lamb

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