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November 4, 2019

Main themes: Open Forum – Key Voices on Digital Identity and Data Privacy in Africa

On 28 October 2019 the Africa-China Reporting Project (ACRP) hosted the Open Forum: Key Voices on Digital Identity and Data Privacy at Wits University. The following is a summary of the main themes discussed at the event.


  • Thea Anderson: Policy Director, Omidyar Network
  • Liesl Muller: Attorney, Statelessness Unit, Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme, Lawyers for Human Rights
  • Kim Dancey: Head Payments Risk, FirstRand Rest of Africa and India
  • John Carneson: Former head of policy, strategy, planning and evaluation at South African Home Affairs
  • Professor Jane Duncan: Department of Journalism, Film and Television, University of Johannesburg
  • Professor Keith Breckenridge: Wits Institute For Social & Economic Research
  • Grace Mutung’u: Associate, Kenya ICT Action Network

The meaning of digital identity is complex

Digital ID refers to one's ability to prove who you say you  are through technological means. There are however differing ideas of what makes ‘good’ or credible ID, across states as well as sectors.

Countries have their own laws over which ID documents are deemed credible with limited standardisation between them. This is because there are multiple ways to prove ‘who you are’ such as biometrics (like finger print identity, iris scans), mobile phone numbers, bank cards, national IDs, PINs or personal questions. The digital space has also opened the possibility of verifying one's identity through social habits – like social media accounts, school records and e-commerce history – that provides granular information that a government-issued ID or utility bill cannot. At the same time some authorities still require proof of a person’s identity through others who can vouch for them (like a village, chief, employer, place of worship).

Variations in what constitutes ‘good ID’ are also due to the differing interests in utilising it. For example banking institutions require information to monitor their clients in order to avoid reputational and financial risks; meanwhile states have the responsibility of regulating populations and movement along increasingly porous borders.

The social impacts (cultural, historical, economic and security)

Digital ID is also creating new ideas of what society means. The use of identification is increasingly creeping into daily life in order to access services (such as healthcare and grants) and to participate in social life. In fact the digital space is also where a person can construct how they are ‘seen’, as a self-defined identity. This leads to a debate over what it means to be under-identified versus over-identified across various platforms.

Cultural sensitivities are important in the African context. Identities already exist from a cultural and ancestral perspective (i.e. how one's community knows or refers to them may differ from what is formally captured). Yet the decision over what aspect of identity and how one's background is utilised, as well as who is deemed as ‘undesirable’, depends on the state and institutions in question. This leaves the question over whether nationality laws – that are often historically inherited – fit the local culture and society adopting it. Historical sensitivities are also important. For instance, the use of fingerprints and photos in ‘pass books’ was a means of racial segregation under apartheid South Africa.

Other relevant discussion points included:

  • The use of digital forms of ID as social progress or a new means of control
  • What are citizens’ rights? There are concerns over giving away personal data (that could be sold off to corporates) but also fear of not receiving services by denying such information
  • Whether it is safe to have one system/ administration as a ‘keeper of all things’ (data). More broadly, is technology the only solution?
  • Security considerations highlight the implications of increased surveillance, the transfer of technology to authoritarian African states and concern over data protection and fraud. Indeed as the digital identity space expands and more people get involved, so will breaches become more likely
  • The reality of being blacklisted and unable to access employment, as well as being wrongly blacklisted and then the difficulties of undoing this process
  • The use of data for political purposes (such as the exposure of political figures through emails and bank accounts)

Issues of access and ‘statelessness’

The discussion on access needs to go deeper than the digital space, as many citizens on the African continent still have no access to a national identity. Close to 1.1 billion people do not have access to formal identification across the world. Half of them live in Sub-Saharan Africa. Moreover the majority are children who have no formal identification from birth.

There is the case of the Nubians in Kenya, for example, who live in the country yet are not recognised by it. Addressing administrative justice should precede the migration of identity online. Likewise access to mobile money, an increasing trend in East Africa, also requires access to mobile devices.

The very steps of modernizing ID systems could itself cause statelessness, as the criteria to prove one's citizenship and identity becomes more stringent. There needs to be clear and conscious application of digital ID, in order to avoid discrimination.

Important duties of the state were outlined at the event. John Carneson (Former head of policy, strategy, planning and evaluation at South African Home Affairs) mentioned that:

  • No African should be required to travel more than four hours to access services related to identity
  • There needs to be an open information policy, available in all required languages
  • Government policies require regular scrutiny and public engagement

Who owns the process and whose responsibility is it?

The Open Forum highlighted differing views of what institutions and who should be responsible for ensuring ethical use of digital ID – and moreover, who should hold them accountable. For instance, some participants suggested that intermediaries like banks are important actors to bring about harmonization of digital ID between countries. It was also suggested that the input of neutral intermediaries, such as lawyers and journalists, were required in mediating the ties between governments and citizens. There is clearly no agreement regarding the process.

The media’s role

In closing, the participants were asked how the media and journalists could be more active in this space. The suggestions included:

  • To be aware of the risks involved in covering such topics
  • They should be neither overly positive nor negative in their reporting but realists regarding the issue
  • To include more collaboration between journalists and experts
  • The appeal to journalists to keep actors in this space honest and accountable
  • To do their background homework, such as look into other country examples and approaches. To start to build expertise in this area
  • To remember the social effects and cultural sensitivities when reporting on digital ID
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