Ensuring socioeconomic inclusion through digital identity

Tanzania permits the use of a palm, toe prints or any other special identification mark instead of a fingerprint when fingers cannot be used due to disability. [iStockphoto]

Barriers to accessing government services have always existed. The specific barriers may vary from one country to another but there are constants that can be identified in multiple African states.

Ensuring that citizens have access to the necessary services has been at the top of government agendas for many years and one widely accepted solution is the implementation of a Trusted Digital Identity (TDI) to hasten the process, whilst eliminating avenues for fraud.

A TDI is created using biometrics, which is unique to an individual and incredibly difficult to falsify. Many African countries have looked to implement TDI but there are still hindrances that have delayed full implementation including matters around data privacy and socioeconomic inclusion.

To drive socioeconomic inclusion using digital identity it is imperative that we create contingencies and considerations that take into regard the different circumstances and realities that exist.

For example, Tanzania permits the use of a palm, toe prints or any other special identification mark instead of a fingerprint when fingers cannot be used due to disability.

In some cases, it is possible to take a full-body picture in the absence of fingerprints for the same reason.

Such provisions are important to ensure that individuals are not hindered from taking advantage of the government services they are entitled to on the basis of disability.

Other such barriers to social inclusion include prohibitive distances, lack of application forms in local languages and an inability to physically present oneself at the registration office due to age or illness, further widening inequities in accessing a digital ID.

In Kenya for instance, when citizens sought to apply for the Huduma Namba and the East African Community biometric e-passport, they travelled long distances in search of centres outside Nairobi where they could be enrolled in the shortest possible time whilst others had to seek out registration centres in urban centres because there are none in their localities.

Kenya’s Huduma Namba exercise was halted by the High Court of Kenya, in October 2021, due to concerns around data privacy. The court ruled that the rollout was in conflict with the Data Protection Act and that without specific provisions in place to protect citizens’ data, the process of rolling out the cards would be illegal. That has sent the Kenyan government back to the drawing board as they identify and put in place regulations to protect Kenyan’s personal data as the Huduma Namba cards incorporate information from all of an individual’s government-issued documents.

According to General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), for data to be truly anonymised, the anonymisation must be done in such a manner that the data can no longer be attributed to a specific data subject without the use of additional information.

Identified data can be transformed into pseudonymized, rather than anonymized ones. Pseudonymization is the process of switching personal data set into an alias or pseudonym. Users of digital services, whether they are individuals, companies or authorities, and governments, need to have the assurance that their personal and professional data are dealt with in accordance with the data protection laws and regulations.

Trust is a key requirement when it comes to the creation of a digital society and this assures that the information provided, obtained, or stored locally is safe if individuals are to benefit from valuable services.

Modern solutions that promote TDI (such as contactless biometric data capture) contribute to the creation of a safe, transparent and inclusive digital ecosystem. GDPR requires you to take all appropriate technical and organisational measures to protect personal data, and pseudonymization can be an appropriate method of choice if you want to keep the data utility.

There are some key successes in the implementation of digital identity in African nations, owing to the efforts of governments and the private sector alike, with one example being found in Nigeria.

The National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) in Nigeria recently announced that 15 per cent of Nigeria’s total population of 216.7 million people have both an e-ID Card and National Identity Number (NIN).

The digital ID card has multiple inbuilt features such as enabling travel within the ECOWAS bloc, transferring funds from individuals’ bank accounts and receiving government social security payments, among other features.

Kenya has also moved towards the implementation of a new generation passport, the East African Community biometric e-passport, phasing out the old generation analogue passport. The shift to the new passport was announced in April 2015 and was to be launched in December 2016 but has been extended several times over the years for various reasons, including the coronavirus pandemic. The chip-embedded passports are meant to tame rampant forgery and impersonation of holders making it impossible for anyone to forge or duplicate a Kenyan passport.

In summation, for us to ensure that we further socioeconomic inclusion through the use of TDI, we must ensure that we conclusively deal with data privacy provisions to guarantee citizens that their information is safe from fraud. Additionally, discriminatory practices must be eliminated to give each individual an equal opportunity to apply for their TDI and access government services efficiently.

The writer, Laurent Sarr, is the Director of Technology at Global Voice Group (GVG).

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