LAURENT SARR: Why Digital Identities Are The New Frontier

Whenever a user, or consumer, creates a profile or account on any online platform, they must have a unique way to identify themselves and give them access to their data. This is the same when it comes to gaining access to your devices and receiving government services. Identity authentication ensures that your data is protected against fraud and theft. This authentication process usually includes three main elements: usernames, passwords, and your device or email account. However, as cybersecurity becomes more important and fraudsters become more sophisticated, a fourth essential element is coming to the fore: Trusted Digital Identities (TDIs). What makes Trusted Digital Identities more secure is the use of biometrics in their creation, which are unique to an individual and extremely difficult to falsify.

TDIs are turning individuals into “digital citizens” in our increasingly digital environment. To guarantee the provision and access to services, including healthcare, education and financial services, among others, the adoption of TDIs is crucial. According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the move toward Digital Identity platforms can increase efficiency of service delivery and reduce transaction costs, besides driving innovation and development.

Today, many African countries are moving towards the digitisation of services. Whilst some had begun the process prior to the pandemic, others were driven towards this direction by the prevailing situation. The need for citizens to receive government services with reduced movement and physical interaction proved that not only is digitisation more efficient but necessary too. Estimates by the World Bank’s ID4D database calculate that nearly one billion people globally lack any form of legally recognized identification. However, that number is slowly being chipped away to make sure that rural residents, poor people, women, children, and other vulnerable groups are not disproportionately impacted, particularly in Africa.

With almost 50 out of 54 African nations having issued e-passports, there has been a clear trend to spread the use of biometric-based identification across Africa in recent years. In 2020, the government of Tanzania also made it mandatory for all SIM card users in the country to register their SIM cards biometrically, leading to the vast majority of citizens now having a biometric ID. As of October 2021, Ghana has also imposed directives around the biometric registration of SIM cards, with the reregistration of existing SIM users currently ongoing. Additionally, many nations have digitised their electoral registers by making biometrics a key element in voters’ identification.

This growing adoption of digital identities is not being pushed by the public sector only; it is receiving support by private entities too. For example, in Kenya, Mission Excellence Global Service Ltd, a company which provides business solutions in healthcare and education using technology, partnered with start-up Invento Robotics to deploy ‘Robodocs’. The machines create a remote connection to doctors and can take details of a patient’s temperature readings and pulse rates, using facial recognition to establish a unique patient record. In the payments sector, Safaricom recently launched their M-Pesa app which allows users to access their account and confirm transactions using biometrics.

There is also support for the use of TDIs by intergovernmental institutions such as the United Nations (UN) and African Union (AU). UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) call for “identity for all” in their target 16.9 and the AU’s Agenda 2063 sets out policies, strategies and regulations to achieve national policy goals through digitalisation.

Data privacy advocates are however concerned about the level of protection sensitive personal data will have in some of the biometric ecosystems. Only 24 African countries have introduced laws and regulations to protect personal data. Many identification programs on the continent have been implemented without adequate consideration for digital security and privacy. One key instance is the Huduma Namba in Kenya, whose roll out was declared illegal by the High Court of Kenya in October for being in conflict with the Data Protection Act. Digitising citizen’s data involves storing them in centralised databases, thus increasing the risk of data breaches and the volumes of data that can be gained by fraudsters if they are successful.

Cybersecurity breaches are now regular occurrences in our world and Africa is highly vulnerable. A report by Liquid Intelligent Technologies estimates that more than half of the African countries have inadequate Cyber Security laws and regulations, making Africa a haven for cybercriminals. This is only exacerbated by the rapidly rising number of mobile phones in the region. The report further highlights that this costs the continent a staggering US$ 4 billion a year.

In summary, TDIs are here to stay and are the gateway to the provision of more efficient services. The support received from governments, intergovernmental organisations and the private sector show that it has to be a combined effort to ensure their success. However, we must not forget the security and protection of the data necessary for TDIs to achieve the desired goals. With continued collaboration between GVG and governments to continue the development of innovations and adoption of new digital ID solutions, Africa will get closer to easily identifying citizens wishing to access digital services equitably.

Laurent Sarr, the Technical Director at Global Voice Group (GVG) 

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