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November 29, 2019

REPORT: Workshop on Digital Identity, Data & Technology in Africa, 28-31 October 2019

10 journalists from Benin, Malawi, Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria, China, Zimbabwe and Zambia were selected to attend the Africa-China Reporting Project's Digital Identity, Data & Technology in Africa Workshop in Johannesburg on 28-31 October 2019, that also included sessions at Wits Journalism's African Investigative Journalism Conference (AIJC). Each journalist also received a reporting grant to undertake a digital identity investigation.

Background on digital identity

As African governments and businesses digitize their identification processes, having a digital identity can be increasingly valuable, if not required, for people to obtain healthcare, education, employment, bank services, purchases and trade; and to pay taxes, amass capital, own property, lend money, open businesses, and travel.

While digital identity has massive implications for economies and societies, very few people understand how they themselves are digitally identified; how their information is used by businesses, governments, and individuals; what rights they have; what risks they are exposed to; and what safeguards are or could be in place.

An estimated 500 million African citizens still have no formal online identification, although African states are now pursuing new and distinctive digital identification projects, many with an economic development agenda and others with national security goals. The private sector is also an active participant in digital identity.

Although African governments have enacted laws to collect personal data, very few ensure that it is recorded, stored and used in a manner that protects and promotes the privacy of users. This poses a great threat to Africa’s data and information. Only 22 African countries have data protection laws, and among these it is unclear exactly how many actually implement or enforce these laws.

Day 1

The first day of the Workshop on 28 October began with the Open Forum – Key Voices on Digital Identity and Data Privacy in Africa at the Senate Room at Wits University, featuring the following speakers:

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

Please see a summary of the main themes discussed at the Open Form here.

Proposal pitching and mentoring session

The workshop commenced with a proposal mentoring session by Paula Fray, media trainer and CEO of Frayintermedia. The journalists pitched their stories and Paula provided advice and guidance on several issues such as having a clear and practical plan; sharpening the focus and relevancy of the stories; how to find evidence and implement a successful methodology, and the importance of producing "evidence-based stories as these stories impact policy".

The journalists' proposals address fundamental questions related to digital identity systems, their functioning and impact on society. People of many African countries still find that "to obtain national ID cards is a nightmare", said Cameroon journalist Tembang Solomon. Millions of people still have no formal identification and "as far as digital identity goes, these people do not exist", said Nigerian Journalist Oluwamayowa Tijani.

The proposals are focused on the following topics:

  • Biometric passports: Who benefits from the data identity of citizens?
  • Double-edged sword of Malawi's digital identification system
  • Identity conflicts: Immigration issues in South Africa at the Desmond Tutu Refugee Centre in Pretoria
  • Digitization of Cameroon’s civil status registry: A major tool towards the country’s emergence by 2035
  • Is a centralized digital identity database possible in Africa?
  • The travails of obtaining Cameroon's digital national identity cards
  • Boko Haram and the problem of digital identity in northeast Nigeria
  • Artificial Intelligence surveillance from China: Help or trap?
  • Reforming and improving civil registration and vital statistics by introducing national identity cards that has a voter's card number embedded

After the proposal mentoring session, the journalists attended the AIJC session by Des Latham on How to protect yourself and your data, the Carlos Cardoso Memorial lecture by Mimi Mefo on Cameroon, and the welcoming and networking dinner held at the Wits Club.

Day 2

The second day of the workshop commenced with a training session by Thea Anderson, Policy Director at Omidyar Network and Abiah Weaver, Director, Marketing Strategy & Communications at Omidyar Network. Abiah and Thea gave the journalists an introduction to digital identity and its complex terminologies, and provided an understanding of the different stakeholders involved. They also engaged the journalists on a number of pertinent questions for discussion, including:

  1. Who is building the digital identity software systems?
  2. Who is profiting from digital identity systems?
  3. What are the examples of country that is doing digital identity well as a model?
  4. What is the importance of bringing in other angles?
  5. What examples are there of technology that is truly helping?
  6. What are the risks to African countries implementing digital identity?
  7. What is appropriate with regard to centralized database?
  8. What are people's rights with regard to police databases?
  9. What is the right amount of digital identity to have?

In discussing these questions and the applicable answers, Thea and Abiah took the journalists through some important keywords. The journalists were grouped into rotating teams where they unpacked the different keywords and explained how they could simplify and explain each term to the general public. The journalists also had to rethink and explain how the keywords could be used and made relevant in their own features and media publications.

Another important aspect of understanding digital identity is the parties who are involved and impacted by decisions in and for digital identity systems. Thea and Abiah divided the journalists into different role-playing stakeholder groups namely residents, government, civil society and the private sector. Each group outlined the definition of each sector and the various people who represented it, and assessed the benefits and implications of digital identity to each stakeholder. This exercise brought to light the various angles, people, perspectives and sources that the journalists could engage in doing their features on digital identity.

Keith Breckenridge, Professor and Deputy Director at the Wits Institute for Social & Economic Research presented the next training session, providing resources for reporting on digital identity in Africa and discussing the issues around technology and systems, regulators and accountability. Keith gave recommendations of sources and techniques to getting information and understanding digital identity policies and systems, including

  • The usefulness of Zotero in doing research
  • The Identification Revolution book by Alan Gelb
  • which can be used to track down every report on information relating to digital identity
  • ID4Africa, a movement for African nations on their journeys to develop robust and responsible identity ecosystems, and more

Professor Breckenridge emphasized that the most important resource for the journalists was the networks which they built, and he encouraging them to build a network of various people from different sectors and industries in order to enable easy gathering of information when conducting their investigations.

Day 3

The opening proceedings of the third day of the workshop was the Africa-China Journalists Forum, the annual gathering of journalists and media professionals showcasing their features and investigations conducted throughout the year.

Following this, former head of policy, strategy, planning and evaluation at Home Affairs, Dr John Carneson presented a case study entitled Home Affairs re-positioning white paper'. Dr Carneson reflected on the implications of Home Affairs' previous backward and colonialist set-up of different groups of registration sectors for people in the country. In introducing the new model for the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) South Africa, Dr Carneson reflected on how the Re-positioning White Paper of the department could help us understand the nature of the DHA and the South African state, the role of civil registration, the NPR and IDs, and the past, present and future role of journalism. Dr Carnerson's aim was to show how the re-positioning the paper could be investigated and given relevance for the adoption of digital identity systems.

A second case study was presented by David Eaves, lecturer in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School in Massachusetts, on the Aadhar digital identity system in India. David explained the functions of the Aadhar system and why it had been proclaimed as one of the most successful ID systems in the world, but also emphasizing the importance of caution and awareness. "People don't know how to prove their identity, before you can have physical identity you need to have identity rights", he said.

David presented the journalists with an exercise to explore five reasons why the Aadhar system was effectively good and bad, and how these could be explained in a feature and investigative writing. In discussing the relevance of the Aadhar digital ID system for Africa, the journalists found access to the Internet was a barrier for many users, and would especially be problematic in many African countries without wide and free Internet access. Other areas of concern included security concerns related to cyber crime, data protection, and surveillance.

The journalists then engaged in a discussion with a panel of experienced journalists on accountability, transparency, privacy, security, and digital identity experiences. The three experienced journalists were Adam Oxford, freelance journalist and coordinator at Hacks/Hackers Johannesburg; Siyabonga Africa, Program Officer at South Africa Media Innovation Programme; and Alastair Otter, managing partner at Media Hack Collective. The discussion included an assessment of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) and its limitations for allowing access to information held by the state.

Day 4

The last day of the workshop began with a presentation by Grace Mutung'u, Associate at Kenya ICT Action Network who looked at how digital identity has become a development theme with the aim of involving and including all African people in the development. "People are convinced that the way to leave no-one behind is to mark everybody," she said. Grace looked at African states and their implementation plans and systems, giving examples of Ghanaian, Ugandan and Kenyan identity systems. She also examined the transitioning phases of many African countries from civil registration systems to digital identity systems, mentioning how civil registrations have for a long time not been a pressing issue for many Africans. For example, "some people will not register for a passport until they need to travel, and some don't even get an ID card unless there is something new which they cannot access without it".

In order to ensure all citizens were registered, she said that "what some states are doing right now is to make it mandatory to have a form of ID". Grace explored the governance linkages and centralization of all digital identity systems and online platforms, and how although digital identity systems are used as a development measure there are some cases where it is used as a control measure.

The next presentation was given by Professor Jonathan Klaaren from the Wits Institute for Social & Economic Research on ten legal tools for reporting on digital identity. Professor Klaaren identified the ten tools as

  • Access to information
  • The right to Informational Privacy
  • The Right to Identity
  • Specific Identification Regulators
  • Sector Regulation in Telecoms/ICT
  • Competition: Law, Policy & Institutions
  • The Courts
  • Surveillance
  • Treaties and Protocols, and
  • People experts and Whistle-blowers

Professor Klaaren also identified the existing tools within each component and the resources for access to information and ensuring the privacy rights of citizens.

The last item on the agenda for the last day of the workshop was the proposal pitching and mentoring follow-up session by Paula Fray. The journalists had to give feedback on the revisions they had made to their proposals, with the guiding notes provided by Paula on the first day. In closing Paula reminded the journalists to fact-check, break down the definitions and the terms associated with digital identity and to find the social and human aspects in their investigations.

Paula also asked the journalists what was the one thing they learned at the workshop and the following responses were given:

  • "To put people into the story and source"
  • "The importance of unpacking data"
  • "Making my story appealing to people"
  • "Learning about how to use digital tools"
  • "Learning about female journalists"
  • "I never realised the importance of digital identity in China, and now I am trying to find the other side of the story"

In closing, the journalists received certificates of participation in the workshop. The certificates were handed over by Project Coordinator Barry van Wyk, Assistant project Coordinator Bongiwe Tutu, and trainer and mentor Paula Fray.


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