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“CHARITY” ACCUSED OF SEX ABUSE COORDINATING ID2020’S PILOT PROGRAM FOR REFUGEE NEWBORNS
“CHARITY” ACCUSED OF SEX ABUSE COORDINATING ID2020’S PILOT PROGRAM FOR REFUGEE NEWBORNS
iRespond, an international non-profit organization that is “dedicated to using biometrics to improve lives through digital identity,” has begun piloting a new biometric program for newborns among the predominately Karen refugee population along the Myanmar-Thailand border, a program it soon hopes to “quickly deploy” at a greater scale and make available to the general global population. The pilot program is being conducted as part of the controversial ID2020 alliance, backed by Microsoft, the GAVI vaccine alliance and the Rockefeller Foundation, and with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a non-profit organization deeply tied to the Western political elite and Wall Street with a controversial track record of silencing numerous sex abuse and fraud allegations.
The new program, an extension of iRespond’s “voluntary” biometric identification program in the Mae La refugee camp, “will create a record of a birth, attested by a trusted clinic, with a goal of changing the life trajectory for the participants.” Through the program, “a guardianship relationship between the newborn and the mother is established and linked to digital and high security physical identity documents.”
However, iRespond’s CEO, Scott Reid, told Biometric Update that these credentials do “not carry the same weight as a true birth certificate,” but asserts that the organization’s biometric “birth attestation” program “could leapfrog the traditional barriers to establishing identity.” Despite the fact that iRespond’s quasi-birth certificates would seemingly serve little purpose in areas where actual birth certificates are readily available, the organization notes that “once the pilot is completed, iRespond is ready to quickly deploy the solution at scale” for mass use around the globe. “Product development” on adapting their platform for newborns began earlier this year and Reid notes that having an iRespond-provided biometric “birth attestation” will enable “access to vital services such as healthcare, social protection, education and banking.”
The pilot program is being conducted at the Mae Tao clinic, which is largely funded bythe CIA cut-out USAID as well as the governments of Germany and Taiwan, the Open Society Foundations and the International Rescue Committee (IRC). The IRC is very active in the day-to-day functions of the clinic (financed by a USAID-funded project) and it is also intimately involved in iRespond’s digital identity program, including its new pilot program for newborns and its earlier efforts to supply Mae La’s residents with biometric identity.
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iRespond’s work in Mae La in conjunction with IRC was first announced by the ID2020 alliance in September 2018. The ID2020-funded pilot program, the announcement states, was to be “led by Alliance partner iRespond and will be conducted in close partnership with the International Rescue Committee (IRC).” It aims to provide biometric identities to the approximately 35,000 individuals inhabiting the area, with the newer program aiming to ensure that babies born in the community are also made participants by default upon birth. It notes specifically that “the pilot will offer blockchain-based digital identification, linked to individual users through iris recognition, for refugees accessing the IRC’s services in the Mae La Camp in Thailand.” Having a “digital identity” would allow refugees “to access improved, consistent healthcare within the camp” with plans for the same system to eventually “electronically document both educational attainment and professional skills to aid with employment opportunities.”
A year later, the program, featured in a lengthy profile in Newsweek, was revealed to be “just the first step in an effort that aims to equip the camp’s entire refugee population with secure and portable “digital wallets” that will hold not just their medical records but also educational and vocational credentials, camp work histories and myriad other records,” ostensibly including financial activity. This is particularly likely given that iRespond is partnered with Mastercard, another ID2020 partner that is closely allied with the company, Trust Stamp, a biometric identity platform that also doubles as a vaccine record and payment system. In addition, IRC’s strategic plans for Mae La through 2020 include “expand[ing] micro-enterprise development and village savings and loans associations,” such as those offered by ID2020 partner Kiva, among others, who link biometric identity to the receipt of loans.
iRespond’s system, not unlike Trust Stamp’s, is also slated to serve as a vaccine record. Larry Dohr, iRespond’s head of Southeast Asia operations, told Reuters in April that “a biometric ID system can keep a record of such people [who have previously tested positive for Covid-19] and those getting the vaccine.” Dohr added that “we can biometrically identify the individual and tie them to the test results, as well as to a high security document. The person then has ‘non-refutable’ proof that they have immunity due to antibodies in their system.” Dohr then refers to such “proof” as a “very valuable credential.”
Notably, in press releases and news reports, iRespond executives emphasize how their biometric identity system, based on iris scans and powered by Microsoft, will “protect privacy” and allow “control and ownership of identity data belong to the holder.” However, the Mae La project does not offer this degree of control and ownership, with Newsweek noting that“Eventually, [iRespond and their collaborators] aim to offer the refugees a level of fine-grained control over what pieces of personal information are shared with others.” In other words, such control over their personal information has not yet been made available to them, despite the public portrayal that this functionality is a base component of iRespond’s system.
What is particularly noteworthy about iRespond’s and IRC’s digital identity efforts is that, while it is a “voluntary” program, destitute refugees wishing to access healthcare and other services IRC provides in the area, including access to clean water, must have their irises scanned in order to reap those benefits. It is highly unlikely that such individuals are not only uninformed about any potential risks of providing their biometrics for use in a pilot program, but are not in a stable enough state to make an informed decision on the matter, as their precarious position would see them choose urgent healthcare needs, etc. over privacy. It increasingly seems that Mae La was chosen as the pilot project because its residents were highly unlikely to decline participation, especially when healthcare access and other basic needs provided by IRC are dangled as carrots on a stick and only accessible upon participation in iRespond’s biometric identity program.
This program is remarkably similar to the World Food Programme’s recently implemented “Building Blocks” initiative, which is funded by the US, German, Dutch and Luxembourgian governments. Building Blocks uses a blockchain-based biometric identity system “to expand refugees’ choices in how they access and spend their cash assistance” in Syrian refugee camps within Jordan. Now, “over 100,000 people living in the camps can purchase groceries by scanning an iris at checkout” as part of the checkout. Those who do not participate are unable to access their WFP “cash benefits” since they are available exclusively through this biometric system, leaving refugees the choice between surrendering their biometric data and food.
Equally noteworthy is the fact that those financially supporting the Mae La project and similar projects, particularly the ID2020 alliance, are “hopeful” that iRespond’s efforts in Mae La will some day be rolled out on a global scale. Indeed,Newsweek noted that “many of the funders [of the Mae La project]—part of what’s known as the ID2020 alliance, which includes Accenture, Microsoft and the Rockefeller Foundation—hope the Mae La project could eventually serve as a blueprint for the world’s millions of stateless people, as well as citizens of developed nations and everyone else.”
According to iRespond’s rather spartan website, their biometric identity platform “primarily relies on iris biometrics, the best modality after DNA for accuracy and reliability.” It further describes its platform as follows:
“When a new participant is enrolled, an encrypted biometric template is created from their iris scan and a randomly assigned 12-digit number is drawn from a pool of 90 billion numbers. On subsequent visits, the identity of the participant is verified when their template is matched and the syste….
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