Digital Identity in Times of Crisis:
Designing for Better Futures
Fall 2022 Research Sprint
The Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, in collaboration with metaLAB (at) Harvard, the Edgelands Institute, and AccessNow, hosted a Research Sprint during the Fall 2022 semester that focused on the ethical, human rights, and societal impacts of digital identity in times of crisis.
Why is digital identity important?
The last three years have included calamities on such a catastrophic scale—a pandemic, war, rising fascism, and climate-driven crises—that the need for safety, security, and communication is greater than ever before. These calamities are likely to continue and, in the maelstrom of crisis, decision-makers, even those with the best intentions, will make choices rapidly within a limited set of options and under conflicting pressures. Some decision-makers may not consider sufficiently the privacy and security of people’s digital identity. Others may be less concerned with the broader social good, using access to others’ digital identity to serve themselves.
What is digital identity?
In the current context, digital identity is the ability for people to prove who they are and, in turn, for societechnical systems to identify them. Digital identity can enable participation: allowing people to receive social benefits from state and civic organizations, to engage in economic opportunities such as work and training programs, and to vote. Yet digital identity can also be used to control, exclude, and target people: to remove social benefits and to limit people’s rights and access to resources.
What were the goals of this Research Sprint?
The goal of the Research Sprint was to produce a series of artifacts demonstrating:
1.) how digital identity is best used by policy-makers and communities in times of crisis
2.) how to protect from harms from either well-intended plans gone awry or the misuse of power
3.) how to envision a future in which people's digital identities are respected and supported
What did we do?
The sprint engaged early career scholars and practitioners with experts from the Berkman Klein Center, metaLAB, and Edgelands networks. We explored multiple dimensions of digital identity through readings, discussions, and hands-on project work. Participants worked in small groups to create one of three types of outputs: visualizations that inform how people’s digital identity is captured or used, speculative fictions that envision better engagements with digital identity in the future, and policy recommendations for the design of sociotechnical systems that respond nimbly to crisis while treating people’s digital identities with respect and responsibility.
Participant Output Work
During the research sprint, participants were organized into groups based on their output tracks and each track focused on producing a specfic output. These outputs are a key component of the research sprint pedagogy, as they enable participants to apply their learning, build their portfolios, and produce unique and actionable artifacts to influence real-world stakeholders.
You can review the outputs below and learn more about their context and significance (link summary post here) in the research sprint.