Can Digital IDs Work In Africa?

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The world we live in is full of interesting contradictions. Today, 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 microwaves that can order your dinner exist among us.
But this is also the world in which, according to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 1.5
billion people on earth still do not have any form of identity document. 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 fore as digital is being touted as a solution to this
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 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?
Alice Munyua (AM): Negative implications: Exclusion, surveillance, profiling, Power dynamics at
play. 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?
Positive implcations: if implemented well, the value of legal ID as articulated by SDG 16.9 with a
focus on designing intentionally for vulnerable communities, fluidity of identity-think non binary
folks, Holding multiple identities, and being able to smoothly switch between them can be very
empowering.
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. There are several issues that could be impacting
its finalization…will discuss.
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. E.g. 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 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, e.g. security or accessibility. Accountability measures in terms of vendors and
infrastructure is also key.
Finally, addressing digital literacy, affordable access to electricity, internet etc. will also play a huge
part in making digital IDs feasible.