Inspired from Chapter 8 of the new book “Data Justice”, I read Rawls’ (1971) work on “Justice and Fairness” in the light of digital ID, and draw on it to imagine what a “fair ID” may look like.
Our research on the incorporation of Aadhaar, the world’s largest digital identity platform, into India’s Public Distribution System has revealed three forms of data injustice over users. A legal injustice occurs when fundamental rights, such as the right to food, become conditional to successful authentication with digital identity systems, authentication whose denial results in exclusion from essential services. An informational injustice is produced when information on how digital identity data are used is hidden from users, or worse, when users are placed in a condition of inability to enquire on such information. Finally, design-related injustice is perpetrated directly through technology design, and harms users through the technical features of digital identity systems.
But if these injustices play out in the digital identity world, what does it take to achieve forms of “fair ID” that overcome unjust practices on users?
Food supplies, Taliparamba municipality, Kerala, November 2011
Reading Chapter 8 of the new book “Data Justice” by Lina Dencik, Arne Hintz, Joanna Redden and Emiliano Trere’ inspired me to go back to John Rawls’ (1971) essay on “Justice as Fairness”, where the relation between the two concepts is problematised. While notions of “justice” and “fairness” are often used as synonyms, such an interchangeability of the two terms is mistaken, Rawls argues. He notes that “the fundamental idea in the concept of justice is fairness”, which makes fairness a fundamental idea on which the notion of justice is built. In Rawls’ view, the one concept constitutes a fundamental condition for the other to unfold.
Rawls’ essay goes into greater detail of the notion of justice. Having stated the “elimination of arbitrary distinctions” as fundamental to justice, he develops a conception of justice articulated on two principles: “first, each person participating in a practice, or affected by it, has an equal right to the most extensive liberty compatible with a like liberty for all; and second, inequalities are arbitrary unless it is reasonable to expect that they will work out for everyone’s advantage, and provided the positions and offices to which they attach, or from which they may be gained, are open to all.”
In my read of Rawls’ work, both principles act as a guiding light in the making of fair ID. The first one, centred on “an equal right to the most extensive liberty” is most clearly seen in the light of its negation, and of the consequences it has on users. Told earlier on this blog, the story of Aisha – whose long wait for a ration card denies her access to food rations – illuminates the consequences of negation of the fundamental liberty to avail the right to food. There are two dimensions to the injustice that Aisha suffers: a relative one, viewing her case in comparison with that of users that, equally entitled as her, can access food rations, and an absolute one, resolved in the bare denial of the right to food to a below-poverty-line woman and her household. Both dimensions impinge on the systemic denial of a condition of impartiality, which is a fundamental trait of fairness.
The second principle, for which “inequalities are arbitrary unless it is reasonable to expect that they will work out for everyone’s advantage”, is again reflected in the inequalities reinforced by digital identity systems within existing programmes. In the case of Aadhaar-mediated access to India’s food security system, systematic inequalities are produced between Ankita, whose right to food is subordinated to capture and usage of her Aadhaar credentials, and the households queueing together at ration shops in the hope that at least one member will be able to authenticate, and hence collect the ration. Hope that, if unfulfilled, will leave the household without the rations through which their right to food is substantiated. And hope that is denied in principle to persons whose bodies who are unreadable by biometric technologies, and for whom the idea of an authorisation-authentication nexus is broken at the basis by the impossibility of authentication.
Following Rawls, fairness is not justice. But it is a fundamental condition for it, the conditio sine qua non for the equality of rights and abolition of arbitrary inequality on which injustice is predicated. How can these principles be infused in digital ID architectures?
As highlighted here, the importance of ID fairness becomes most notable when facing the consequences of its denial. The stories of Ankita, Adeela, Aisha, and the users of India’s food security system narrated in this blog are painful illustrations of such consequences. And at the same time, stories of fair ID emerge: reading on Kenya’s civil rights organisation Haki na Sheria, which is conducting mobile birth registration to ensure citizenship rights across the country’s population, leads to visualise the equality envisaged by Rawls into practical acts of production of digital ID. It is on such practices of fairness, and on the possibility of embodying them through digital identity architecture, that more light needs to be casted by research.