Digital ID’s: Are they workable in the African context?

by Kudzanai Thondhlana

The world we live in is full of interesting contradictions. In today’s world, you can easily connect to, communicate and do business with a person on the other side of the globe all thanks to technology bringing the world together. We are making better products faster, driverless cars, talking speakers and even microwaves that can order your dinner exist.

But this is also a world in which, according to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 1.5 billion people on earth still do not have any form of identity documents. Given that identification can be critical in accessing basic services, it is evident why SDG 16.9 sets out to ensure all earthlings are identified by 2030.

The topic of digital IDs has been rising to the forefront and it is being touted as a solution to the lack of identification problem. The viability of digital IDs has been polarising as some see it as the much-needed panacea, while others are concerned about the data security and potential abuse by authorities. Of particular concern on the African front, for example, is that only 4 of the 54 countries on the continent have ratified the African Union Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection, and just 15 have data protection laws in place.

I reached out to Ms. Alice Munyua, Policy Advisor for Africa at Mozilla, to find out more about this contentious issue, as well as some of the things they are looking into pertaining to digital IDs and digital identity principles.

Kudzanai Thondhlana (KT): What are the implications of a Digital ID from a citizen perspective?

Ms. Alice Munyua (AM):  The negative implications of digital ID may include exclusion, surveillance, profiling, and the data being involved in power dynamics. Many questions arise like who makes the decisions about whom? Whose voices are heard, and how are they affected by the system in place? Who controls the infrastructure upon which our identification systems are being built, where are they based, and what dependencies does that create?

On the side of positive implications, that is if digital IDs are implemented well, is the empowering of vulnerable communities, for example, refugees who experience statelessness, and non-binary people who hold multiple identities being able to smoothly switch between them.

If designed and implemented responsibly, it can provide transparency to the individual, making transactions requiring trust between particular parties, easier.

KT: Why do you think so few African governments have ratified the African Union Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection?

AM: There is considerable diversity in approaches to digital identity, making harmonisation, standardisation, federated approaches, and interoperability particularly important. But the ratification of Malabo has been slow and lukewarm.

KT: Are African nations truly equipped to safely keep the vast amounts of data that Digital IDs will involve?

AM: It depends on the country; do they have the necessary safeguards in place.

KT: Do the benefits outweigh the potential risks?

AM: As the experience from various countries has borne out, for example, India, Peru, these so-called efficiencies/benefits will vary entirely with the context in which they are deployed and factors such as infrastructure, connectivity, and digital literacy have an impact.

KT: How feasible is digitally documenting all citizens given the urban-rural population distribution found in most African countries?

AM:  A number of challenges exist that need to be overcome. These include infrastructure challenges (electricity, access, and affordability of internet), low levels of connectivity and low levels of digital literacy. However, it is possible to do so with careful planning and implementation.

KT: How can these challenges be minimised?

AM: Intentionality and particularly considering the needs of vulnerable groups. While legal regulations might not catch up on ethical challenges faced by establishing digital identification systems, we should be able to identify or put a higher bar for ourselves.

It is also important to prioritise the rights of individuals over the rights of institutions. Another important consideration is public participation, instead of simply designing the digital system with people who are in positions of power, processes could be designed where individual users have the opportunity to meaningfully give feedback in a way that is taken on board and listened to.

There must be proactive plans to mitigate risks. Know what the risks are and highlight them so they can be addressed, for example, security or accessibility. Accountability measures in terms of vendors and infrastructure are also key.

Finally, addressing digital literacy, affordable access to electricity, internet, etc. will also play a huge part in making digital IDs feasible.





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