The challenges of identity in Brazil

As technology advances more and more, we may not notice that, instead of moving towards true innovation, we are simply transferring the same old bureaucratic processes as before to the digital realm.

Thinking of digitizing the identification models, most of the various document issuing institutions in Brazil have developed applications where citizens can access a digital version of the physical document - the keyword is "several". Each document has its own separate application, which means that people need to download each one to have access to the official digital version of each Brazilian document.

This scan, then, simply takes the information previously available on paper and places it on a mobile device; digital documents are identical to physical cards. There are practically no new features or benefits other than being able to access your documents on your phone and also in your wallet. This means that a global id was never created.

But this large volume of digital documents highlights another problem that Brazil faces when it comes to documentation: the extremely high number of documents that Brazilians need and the lack of standardization or centralization between them.

There are three main documents accepted as certificates of identity in Brazil:

  • the CPF (Cadastro de Individuals, or “Cadastro de Individuales”);
  • the RG (Cadastro Geral, or “Cadastro Geral”) and;
  • the CNH (National Driver's License, which is a driver's license in Brazil).

Learn more about each one of them and why they are important for the life of Brazilians.

CPF: high importance, low reliance

The first one, the CPF, is extremely important because it’s required of Brazilians if they want to actively participate in society — by entering universities, voting, going into public service, etc. For many Brazilians, it might seem like every adult around them has a CPF number; the reality is much different. Among the 210 million of Brazilians, around 50 million people don’t have an active CPF (because they never issued it or because it was blocked for various reasons); most of these people are extremely marginalized, and their lack of documentation is as much a result as a consequence of this.

The CPF is issued by the Brazilian Federal Revenue Department, a tax organization responsible, among other things, for keeping a database of all citizens who are alive and contributing to society. If a citizen has issued a CPF number and obeys all their civic duties, such as paying taxes and voting, then their CPF is supposed to be regular; in case of any non-compliance, it can be blocked and, in case of death, the Revenue Department permanently blocks the number, stopping it from being used by others in the interest of committing identity fraud.

Around 50 million people don't have an active CPF

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. It’s not unusual for people to suddenly discover they are considered dead by the Revenue Department, or to find out their CPF is blocked when they most need access to government support — as has been happening to many during the COVID-19 pandemic when they try to access the auxiliary emergency fund provided by the government. These people fit the requirements and are entitled to the money, but discover they can’t access it due to problems they didn’t know they had.

The CPF number is usually present in the RG card, always there in the CNH document, but it can also come in its own official card — although this card is pretty much meaningless by itself since it doesn’t feature a photo of the individual, which stripes it of identity comparison value. Because of that, most citizens don’t carry or even have a physical CPF document.

RG: one document, dozens of formats

Next, we have the RG, also referred to simply as identity card (“carteira de identidade”, in Portuguese). Accepted as identity proof throughout the entire Brazilian territory, the RG is not actually a federal document; there are several issuing institutions in the whole country and each state has its own RG model.

This means a person from São Paulo has a completely different RG document than someone from Amazonas, for example. And every decade or so, each state’s agencies update their models, which leads to different document formats circulating concurrently in the same state as well. All in all, considering every state and the different formats within each state, the total amount of possible valid RG documents circulating in Brazil is absurd.

But that’s not all: besides the models and the whole formatting being different, each state has a completely separate database from the others; there is no connection at all between the identity cards being issued in one and in another. And every decade or so, each state’s agencies update their models, which leads to different document formats circulating concurrently in the same state as well.

What does this mean, exactly? That a person who already has an RG from São Paulo can request another one in Amazonas and use both of them as identity cards as it suits them, with no problem whatsoever. It’s possible for a Brazilian citizen to issue different RG documents in all 26 of the country’s states and have them all be considered equally valid.

CNH: standardization (for those who drive)

And then we also have the CNH — which, being a driver’s license, is obviously only obligatory for those who want to drive. It is issued by the local agencies of a federal institution, Detran, which does have a national database. Therefore, it’s a pretty trustworthy form of ID certification, since the physical card includes all the essential information, a photo of the citizen, and both the RG and CPF numbers as well as the CNH number itself.

Remember we said these are the main ones, right?
Brazilians also need to carry, depending on their circumstances and needs, a document to certify they are students, another to access the federal healthcare system (Sistema Único de Saúde — SUS), another to access their private healthcare services if they have them, another to access government services and benefits, address certifications and, among many others, their passports. And, for some highly specialized professions, also their respective association documents. And these are still not all of them.

Having access to a digital version of each one of these documents certainly seems practical — and is actually practical, to an extent. However, it's still quite a rough experience, not only because you need to go from one app to another, but because it transfers all this lack of centralization and standardization to the mobile realm. Thus, it reinforces the extreme fragility of the Brazilian current identification system.

All of this makes it extremely difficult to accurately verify a Brazilian citizen’s identity. One single person can hold a dozen different RG cards, for example — one in each state —, CPF numbers might be considered irregular for unknown reasons, and people might try to use non-official documentation as proof of identity.

Another problem is the fragility of the document itself, especially in the case of the RG. Since each state has its own format, there’s no standard for where information should appear in, what’s supposed to be the issuing organ, or how the document number should be formatted.

As you can imagine, this is a playfield for fraudsters, since it makes it harder for anti-fraud companies to develop automated solutions capable of identifying all possible fraud scenarios and strategies. The only possible way to completely verify whether a RG document is legit or not is with documentoscopy, which requires highly specific skills and is a very manual, time-consuming demand.

MeuID: the first digital identity in Brazil
This fragile, antiquated, and bureaucratic scenario — and also in spite of it — pushes innovation forward among the disruptive companies that are working toward bringing true change to how Brazilians see identity and identify themselves. One of the most promising digital identity solutions is MeuID (“MyID”, in a free translation), developed by Brazilian regtech idwall.

MeuID aims to put each person in control of their data and their identity, thus being able to prove they are themselves in a quick, frictionless, and truly innovative way. With MeuID, idwall wants to allow people to have all the most relevant data centralized in a completely secure, transparent, and trustful space. Besides strengthening identity validation and data privacy, this also opens up the way for people to have quicker, easier access to services, places, and products.

World Identity believes there are matters and features that must not be excluded from any digital identity solution that truly wants to change how we all view identity — we can read it below. To our understanding, MeuID fits into all these requirements.