Tech Overlook

Microsoft gives $1 million to solve problem most people don’t know exists

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peggy johnson
Johnson, executive vice president of business development at


  • This post is part of Business Insider’s ongoing series
    on Better
  • Peggy Johnson, executive vice president of business
    development at Microsoft, explains why Microsoft recently made
    a big donation.
  • The money is intended to help people trapped in the
    “identity gap.”


My three children are all grown now – the youngest is away at
college – but I still remember each of their first days.

They were filled with moments of ritual: the little footprint,
the first photo, introducing them to their names, and having them
meet their family members.

On each of those first days, another, less memorable ritual
happened. Both mundane and miraculous, it was vital to their
futures. It was the moment they were issued birth certificates
that legally established their identities.

Throughout their lives, one document provides our children with
the foundation for every right and opportunity we could hope to
offer them: to be inoculated against disease, pursue an
education, obtain a passport, open a bank account, seek
employment, rent or buy a home, get married, and vote.

In countries like the United States, where my children were born,
this process is so universal that it seems automatic, like
certified mail delivered by the Stork. But even in today’s age of
ubiquitous data, almost one in three babies are born without any
official documentation.

On paper, they don’t exist. They join more than 1.1 billion
people around the world – disproportionately women, children and
refugees – who lack any legal form of identity.

People trapped in the “identity gap” face uncertain futures. They
may be denied a spot in school, turned away from the polls, or
unable to travel freely, even within their home countries. They
are more likely to be trafficked as children. People displaced by
conflict and instability are often unable to seek aid and rebuild
their lives.

The identity gap problem is enormous, and its human impacts are
unconscionable. But for the first time in our history, it may
also be solvable.

Driven by the convergence of rising global connectivity,
breakthrough technologies, and growing political willpower, the
United Nations has set a simple but audacious target to achieve
universal legal identity by 2030.

I was proud to announce on Monday at the World Economic Forum
that Microsoft is donating $1 million to support the ID2020 Alliance, a global
public-private partnership dedicated to tackling this challenge.

The Alliance aims to develop a secure, portable form of digital
identity and implement it across governments and agencies by

As a founding member, Microsoft joins Accenture, the Rockefeller
Foundation, and a growing list of organizations committed to this
worthy mission. And progress is already happening. Last year,
Microsoft engineers in Europe
collaborated with Accenture and Avanade
as they led the
development of a digital identity prototype created using
blockchain, the technology best known as the backbone of
cryptocurrencies like bitcoin.

This prototype harnesses the secure, immutable and distributed
nature of blockchain to empower individuals with direct ownership
of their personal information. It allows people to consent to
when their information is released and shared.

Blockchain has generated a frenzy in tech circles this past year.
In fact, the story of blockchain and Bitcoin is a myth almost
tailor-made for Silicon Valley worship – fantastic wealth
seemingly conjured from nothing but a bit of code and enthusiasm.
But we believe that blockchain’s potential goes far beyond just
bitcoin and cryptocurrencies. It represents a transformative
opportunity to help solve our most vexing challenges – whether
they’re business challenges or humanitarian ones.

At its core, blockchain is like every technology. It’s a tool.
Its impact isn’t just derived from its capabilities but from how
we choose to apply them.

The truth is that technology is usually the easy part. When lives
and futures are at stake, you can’t simply hack your way to a
better world. So in addition to our financial and technical
assistance, my colleague Mary Snapp and her team in Microsoft
Philanthropies will support ID2020 in the challenging work of
partnering across sectors and establishing standards, which is so
often the difference between building something, and building it

Last year, when this work was first presented to our senior
leadership team, we were overwhelmed by the possibilities and
also keenly aware of the challenges ahead. But when it came to
the decision to participate, the answer was obvious. We had to do
it— not because of the bottom line numbers or the market
opportunity, but because it aligned with our sense of purpose as
a company to empower every person and organization on the planet
to achieve more. We see that mission boldly brought to life in
the aspirations of the ID2020 Alliance.

Peggy Johnson is executive vice president of business
development at Microsoft.

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