Omidyar Network hopes to ensure African digital ID is ‘Good ID’

africa digital id biometrics Identity management

The philanthropic investment outfit Omidyar Network has taken a keen interest in the development of ID systems in Africa. It invested in the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) to work with the African Union in the sector, and has been formulating and promoting the concept of ‘Good ID’. Omidyar Network sponsored the ID4Africa 2019 conference as a foundation partner along with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Open Society Foundations. Biometric Update caught up with Omidyar Network’s investment partner and digital identity specialist Magdi Amin at the event.

“These systems should not be developed in the dark and released onto citizens,” Magdi Amin said on the side-lines of the event where biometric and digital identity scheme vendors meet African government representatives looking for advice as much as new tech. Omidyar Network is aiming to have a positive impact at all stages of the ID process from design, to national implementation and international recognition.

Omidyar was one of the principal sponsors of the event, a decision based on the fact that 60 percent of African nations are planning to implement a new or revised ID system, as well as the fact that half of the world’s people without a legal identity live in Africa. Looking at the systems themselves, “we’ve found that a lot of issues and concerns were raised including vendor lock-in, data being sometimes held hostage during contractual disputes, a lack of control, privacy issues,” said Amin.

Anywhere in the world, identity schemes can be exploited by governments for political gain, something the investment group hopes to tackle with its Good ID approach. “Good ID is about the process of doing things, about the technology and about the policies,” said Amin, explaining their hopes to influence the entire value chain. “Here’s where we’re hoping to see a developmental impact and a value to users – control, agency, that they should find it useful in gaining access to services.”

One way to foster developments that benefit the people included is to involve civil society, according to Amin. He believes its voice is useful in representing the opinions and needs of those being issued with IDs, but that this is not necessarily obstructive to technology developers, as civil society input can also help flag problems and accelerate product development. The Network may further its support for civil societies as well as initiatives such as ID4Africa and SmartAfrica.

“There’s a number of countries in the process of doing ID systems where we think there’s a good chance to get it right,” said Amin, as Omidyar looks at national systems at one end of its approach. The investors are in conversation with UNECA for Ethiopia and MOSIP – the modular open source system – for Morocco. “There may be some parallel work to make sure that civil society engagement is robust there,” said Amin, adding that the organization is also in dialogue with Ghana and Nigeria.

At the other end of their investment approach are the international issues of mutual recognition and verification, interoperability and standard-setting. “One of the main reasons for investing in UNECA was to help work collaboratively with the African Union, to sort of set the principles for how ID should be developed in Africa because we felt a lot was happening at the individual country level and even in some sub-region work, but there was not yet an Africa-wide platform,” explained Amin, adding that creating frameworks for countries to recognize each other’s platforms could be part of the AU’s digital policy work.

“As we get more and more alignment and start to talk about a common digital ID platform for Africa, it could create a lot of efficiencies for countries, but only if they agree and own that concept,” said the investor, whose organization is running research projects to help African countries think through issues such as foundational versus functional ID schemes.

Controlling the data at the individual and national level is a key requirement for privacy protection, according to Amin. While the 2014 Malabo Convention on cybersecurity and data privacy awaits further ratification, privacy still needs to be built in to technology and systems.

“Privacy is very much around user control and user agency – it’s not about hiding the data,” said Amin, explaining how people are willing to share their data, for example with medical staff, if they are confident about where their data goes. “So privacy can enhance data flows, not restrict them. The only way to do that is give people a little bit of control.”

Advocating privacy protection with the private sector, to build it into their products is key and ID4Africa provides a venue: “Vendors should also hear the development agenda and questions like transparency and accountability.”

With developments in data protection across Africa, strong debate among delegates and a strengthening voice from civil society, overall the outlook for ID in Africa is potentially positive as, according to Amin, the continent is enjoying “a moment where a lot of good can happen if we engage constructively.”

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