The Promise and Peril of Biometrics with Sebastian Manhart and Simprints

Aid, Evolved
Aid, Evolved
The Promise and Peril of Biometrics with Sebastian Manhart and Simprints

Sebastian Manhart has recently concluded his role as COO of Simprints. Simprints is the world’s only nonprofit biometrics company focused on the last mile. He now works as an Advisor on Digital Identity for the German Federal Chancellery, the World Bank, and ID2020.

The conversation you’re about to hear falls roughly into two parts. The first traces the eventful six years that Sebastian spent at Simprints. We start with a bunch of scrappy young kids studying in Cambridge – with an idea. We trace this over the years to the organization today, which has reached well over a million people in 12 countries. We cover the ups and downs, the risks and successes along the way. Part of what you’ll hear in this story is the rise and popularization of digital identity in the aid sector.

In the second half of our conversation, we dive into the nuanced and tricky issues surrounding digital ID. How do we strike the balance between the work of institutions and the needs and rights of individuals? How have the currents of change shaped the way that this technology was introduced, and how it’s being taken up. And where do we go from here?

Show Notes

  • Simprints is the world’s only nonprofit biometrics company focused on the last mile.
  • 300,000 Missing Refugees: In 2018, a government inquiry uncovered that the number of refugees in Uganda had been grossly exaggerated by 300,000. Since these numbers are often used to determine foreign aid contributions, exaggerating these numbers can result in greater funds going to recipient countries.
  • The Rohingya fingerprint database: The New Humanitarian published this article on June 21, 2021 – a week before this podcast was aired. In it, they reveal that Sebastian’s ‘worst case scenario’ hypothetical has come true. The Myanmar government has gained access to a database containing fingerprint signatures of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees. Though this database was created for the purposes of aid, it can now be used to increase persecution and ethnic violence.
  • ID2020 is a non-profit alliance with a mission to provide ethical legal identities to provide better services to refugees and other at-risk populations. It receives significant support and expertise from the private sector. It advocates for digital identity solutions that are private, portable, persistent, and personal. On its website are practical resources for implementers, including technical requirements as well as an ethical ID certification program.
  • The ID2020 Conspiracy Theory: This article from senior editor Ben Parker at The New Humanitarian covers in greater depth the false conspiracy theory that brought infamy to ID2020.
  • Sustainable Development Goal 16.9 targets “by 2030 [to] provide legal identity for all including free birth registrations”
  • The New Humanitarian Blog and Podcast: Sebastian recommends this blog and podcast as an excellent resource to stay up to date on the humanitarian industry
  • BRAC is an international development organization based in Bangladesh. It’s also the largest non-profit in the world in terms of number of employees – over 90,000 employees. Dr. Kaosar Afsana, the head of BRAC’s Health, Nutrition, and Population Programme, was an early believer and advocate for Simprints. Her belief was a source of inspiration and motivation for Sebastian.
  • Erica Layer, CEO of D-Tree: Sebastian’s shout-out goes to Erica Layer for her work to fill the gap in implementation expertise between technologists and operational health programs.
  • The Identity Woman Newsletter from Kaliya Young: Sebastian recommends Kaliya’s writing as a specific resource related to digital ID and self-sovereign identity.
  • Development as Freedom and Mountains beyond Mountains are Sebastian’s recommended reading. The first helped shape his thinking around what development is. The second is a remarkable story of tenacity centered on the founder of Partners in Health.

Similar Episodes

If you liked this chat with Sebastian Manhart, you might also enjoy our chat with Rosa Akbari about the use of digital identities in humanitarian response, drawing on her experience from Mercy Corps and the International Rescue Commission.