Verify my life: could a Nigerian problem lead to a global trust solution?

(Or fuel a two-tier society?)

Biometrics and digital ID

A Nigerian identity verification company is building a way to confirm details of an increasing number of Nigerians’ lives, way beyond their names and dates of birth. One-off checks when applying for a new job, renting an apartment or taking out a loan will merge to form a profile which could be supplemented and possibly surpassed by the public actively creating pre-verified profiles covering education, career history, finances and even your rental history.

Rather than a social credit score gleaned from hundreds and thousands of day-to-day data points as being developed by companies in China, or more straightforward credit scores elsewhere with more formal banking sectors, VerifyMe Nigeria interacts with government ID agencies and uses teams of agents on the ground to corroborate the facts about people’s lives such as addresses, career history and checking certificates.

This would give job applicants a competitive advantage – they could demonstrate a verified career. This is a key issue worldwide, but particularly acute in Nigeria, and formed the genesis of the company’s creation. The family of founder Olutunji Oluwole was poisoned by a cook and had to be airlifted to hospital. The story, in How We Made It In Africa, sets the scene for the need for a way to establish trust.

As a solution, it would also make choosing a tenant easier – what’s their employment history? – and, in a place where rental scams are rife, it would form a tool to make choosing a landlord easier. It provides a profile for opening accounts and securing loans, but could it lead to a two-tier society of the profiled and unprofiled? Nigeria has so far issued national ID numbers to over 41 million people, but of a population of over 207 million.

Initially a KYC or Know Your Customer firm which checks certain customer data points provided at sign-up against national databases, its scope is to eventually have pre-checked the basics and more.

Biometric Update spoke to CEO Esigie Aguele over video conferencing to find out more about how the system works and the possibilities.

“We see ourselves as digitizing trusted identities in Africa and Nigeria,” says Esigie Aguele, speaking from Cape Town on a video conference call alongside head of communications in Lagos.

“It’s catching on because it’s needed, we’re solving a problem of identity for homeowners, for human resources and it’s working for service providers… they can be compliant onboarding customers.”

The system relies on formal identification credentials. VerifyMe Nigeria has agreements with and pays undisclosed fees to the various government departments which issue identity credentials, and which themselves are merging their databases.

“We’re heavily in the game working as a partner with our government making sure that as many people as possible are able to enrol in NIN [National Identification Number],” says Aguele, “Digital identity in Nigeria is tied to an authoritative source of identity owned by the government: passport, NIN, driver’s licence, BVN. We have access to all four.” Banking Verification Numbers are another form of biometric ID just for bank accounts, established as a way to fight financial crime, and required for an increasing number of situations such as public sector pay and pensions.

However, not all agree that private companies should be interacting with these databases. “Reducing personal details of individuals shared with either the CBN, the NIMC or the Immigration Services to elements of business transactions is very worrying and clearly violates privacy laws,” Adeboye Adegoke, senior program manager at Paradigm Initiative, a Nigerian social enterprise which advocates for digital rights, told Biometric Update by email. “Again, this is an opportunity to look at the frameworks for privacy protection in Nigeria. It will be interesting to interrogate this process and the extent to which it is being done. Privacy rights aren’t traditionally respected in Nigeria, so It is not so surprising that government agencies are transacting with the details of the citizens.”

Addressing the gaps

“Addressing is a big part of the recovery part of the service industry,” says Aguele. Addresses in many parts of Africa are less established or more or less non-existent. There are many schemes to tackle addressing and mapping issues and arguments that biometric ID schemes make a person’s place of residence irrelevant, but for VerifyMe, addresses are still key for pinning someone to a place, and are a requirement for services in Nigeria such as opening a bank account.

“We took the Uber model,” says Aguele, “This can happen for the mobility industry, how about for the verification industry?” They have a team of registered address-checking agents who use a smartphone app not just to carry out the work, but to receive jobs. The agents have to verify themselves and then set when and where they want to work. The app trains them and initially only sends the simplest jobs. Then when a job is available in an agent’s area, they get sent the task, just like a ride to an Uber driver.

The agent sets out for what is thought to be its rough location and then has to walk the streets and lanes, asking people they meet for more information. Rural areas prove more difficult and around 5 percent of all address checks fail, compared to 2 percent of ID checks proving impossible.

Job Andrew, an address and certificate checking agent working in Kaduna State told Biometric Update: “I go to the address and use the KYC agent apps to take the picture of the house and confirm it, I take two pictures of the house and one picture of the street and ask the neighbors or the person who stays at the address and the GPS will coordinate and record the location. It takes me ten minutes to verify an address. I am paid five to seven hundred Naira per address.”

The amount is equivalent to US$1.30 – $1.80 and Aguele says that many make 30,000N ($77) a week which is what they may otherwise expect to earn in a month in other jobs. “I introduce myself as an agent from VerifyMe Nigeria showing them my means of identification which is my Agent Identity Card,” says full-time agent Onanuga Oluwatobiloba who works in Lagos State, “Which makes them more comfortable to attend to me well.”

“No people don’t know VerifyMe,” said Emmanuel Femi, an address agent operating in the Federal Capital Territory who fits the work around his day job. “So I do a little explanation to people I meet while in the field. I strongly believe it can help build trust in Nigeria.” In Job Andrew’s words, “Some of them know and some don’t know, and some understand and some don’t.”

Competition

But recognition looks set to increase. Despite Covid-19 and the on-the-ground man hours required, it’s a busy time for onboarding in Nigeria. Speaking earlier in the month on CNBC Africa, Aguele said the Covid-19 situation had led to increased growth for the company as more people are working from home and trying to access services remotely.

The company is not alone. The demand for identity checking services is soaring worldwide, and as more countries establish ID programs, there’s increasing scope to offer private services. India’s massive Aadhaar ID scheme is allowing ever more integrations for its 1.25 billion holders. Even in Nigeria, there is local and international competition such as Seamfix’s Verified.ng, Smile Identity and London-founded Shuftipro.

VerifyMe’s army of agents and ambition set it apart. Though most of the company’s work so far has been in and around Lagos, though their network of agents recently received a boost via a partnership with recruitment firm Jobberman for last-mile verification, reports This Day, potentially adding 30,000 agents and increasing capacity despite the coronavirus outbreak.

Verification and consent

The information they collect authorises CBN Tier 3 (the highest level, required by the Central Bank of Nigeria for opening the least restricted bank accounts). Around five years ago, address verification would cost an individual 5,000N ($12.90), or 1,500N ($3.87) for corporate clients. “We collect other CBN data sets. So the individual doesn’t have to be home. The address needs to exist, and we need to be able to confirm with other individuals who are verified in that area that that person lives there. And that would be a compliant CBN tier 3 address verification,” explains Aguele, “We’re the highest quality, lowest price.”

For employment history, VerifyMe agents check the Corporate Affairs Registration of the company, checks email addresses being used by staff with whom they correspond and ultimately do not take the information from the person applying for the new job.

Potential employees can also run a geo-location check on an applicant, for example a domestic worker, to see whether that person does live at a provided address, according to checking GPS locations via their phone. Aguele says that consent is provided by the person being verified for all verification categories.

Consent in situations such as checks for finding work is not always so clear cut. “When looking at anything to do with digital identity, we’ve got to be aware of the power imbalance that is often there between the person and whoever is asking for their data. Are they in a position to say no to a potential employer, landlord, or police officer?” asks Dr Tom Fisher, senior researcher, Privacy International, in an email to Biometric Update, “This is why we’ve got to be very careful of any system that has as its sole protection the idea of ‘consent’: this isn’t necessarily a protection against inappropriate demands being made for your data.”

Fisher believes that digital identity systems that create a record can make certain parties and organizations more powerful: “If a dispute with a rogue employer can leave a permanent black mark on your record. It’s the most vulnerable who would be most at risk from this form of exploitation.”

While VerifyMe’s database checks for fields such as name and date of birth are all real-time, address and corporate verification takes much longer as the records do not exist. Checking everything, including ID, does create a record. And agents do piece together trails such as a worker who committed fraud at one hotel, then another and has since tried for three more hotel jobs which VerifyMe could block.

Economic foundations

“There’s going to be no proper credit reporting if people aren’t sharing data, there’s going to be no proper work history reporting if employers aren’t sharing data,” says Aguele. And here is where they see their task and their opportunity. “We see ourselves as digitizing trusted identities in Africa and Nigeria,” and as a ‘socializing industry’ where “those employees can go out and get insurance, go out and get loans,” says Aguele, who would ideally like birth to death identity so that social inclusion and access to services does not belong only to those who have been biometrically registered for one of the four main credentials.

“Digital identity is a bedrock of economic development,” he believes. “For any country to be able to move forward you need to be able to give loans, and to give loans you need trusted identities.”

Social inclusion and a verified identity could also lead to a competitive advantage for individuals. VerifyMe Nigeria is working on new products such as My ID which will allow people to voluntarily log their profiles and will use biometric facial recognition from the four main IDs to verify that account, via a photograph or live match and will establish whether a physical credential is authentic.

The API behind that will be available to other firms, meaning verified ID could be integrated into far more services, taking the offering way beyond checks on the grounds of safety and criminality. Professional networking sites where a user can show that their jobs and recommendations are authentic could be beneficial, or real estate services where landlords can check potential tenants’ employment and rental history, with the potential for integration with any service such as professional dating platforms.

Redress

The company collates the OneIdentity Report which shows all the components that make up an ID verification and the person being checked will be able to view it in future. Someone being checked also has 90 days to dispute any ‘adverse information’ collected on them.

“Why should there be any limit at all?” asks Dr. Isaac Rutenberg, Senior Lecturer, and Director of the Centre for IP and IT Law at Strathmore Law School in Nairobi in an email to Biometric Update. “If someone only learns about adverse information six or eight months after it’s collected, as is highly likely to happen, it is a tenant of data protection that the individual should always be given the opportunity to request that data be corrected or, depending on the law, deleted.”

The firm is regulated by the Nigerian Identity Management Commission (NIMC) and the Nigerian Information Technology Development Authority. “In order for you to make peoples’ lives easier in the identity industry in Nigeria – because of the law and regulation – you have to be a government partner.

“Some obvious issues are raised any time an entity starts aggregating disparate datasets containing personal data,” says Dr. Rutenberg, “Those issues are magnified when the entity is a private company, and further magnified when the regulatory environment is fairly nascent. The company may be regulated by the Government of Nigeria, but data protection is new to the law in Nigeria, and the boundaries of acceptable behaviour are still very much unknown.”

Building trust

“And in order for people to know about your product and use it, you have to be a brand. We think we have to be in the entire value chain, to be a government partner and be a brand and continue to build ID products,” says Aguele, who believes the services will make lives easier and increase inclusion. “Our mission statement is ‘enabling growth through trust’.”

Even during the coronavirus outbreak, Nigeria’s authorities have taken an extreme path with arrivals. Irrespective of rights, they have chosen to simply retain the passports of all travelers arriving in the country by air until they complete the 14-day quarantine.

Historically, Nigeria is has been conflicted with issues of trust and potential solutions. Reports, articles and op-eds on the importance of Nigerian identity schemes and the possibilities of digital ID appear highly frequently, as does criticism of the National Identity Management Committee for being so slow at signing people up for NINs, only managing a fifth of the population so far.

Fragmented identities

A recent article outlines the 13-year journey of the identity mission of the NIMC to date, spanning its political committees (the latest was launched just a few days ago to work on the integration of disparate identity databases), roadmaps and bottlenecks, up to the latest mega-injection by the Word Bank. As journalist Emmanuel Paul points out, “Despite the perceived benefits, the drive for a digital identity in Nigeria has been fraught with fundamental hurdles, and it is not clear how another committee will overcome them. This is considering that even when committees are set up, their recommendations are not always implemented.”

The next day, a report suggested the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), may be creating biometric ID for dockworkers ‘by the end of the year.’

The NIMC’s NIN, on which the VerifyMe system could ultimately rely, is only the latest of multiple ID scheme attempts going back to the 1970s. But it has received $433 million in World Bank funding, as Phase 2 of the WURI (West Africa Unique Identification for Regional Integration and Inclusion) program. Following Côte d’Ivoire and Guinea, the Bank is funding robust ID systems throughout the ECOWAS community.

The WURI system, similar to India’s Aadhaar, is not about citizenship. Being included does not make you a national, but simply creates a unique record of each individual present, which usefully allows people in highly mobile regions such as ECOWAS to be verified.

Since independence, Nigeria has created even greater complexity on citizenship by including the need for a ‘certificate of indigeneity’ from your local government area (LGA), which is still hampering identity efforts today.

“Nigeria’s identification landscape is greatly complicated by uncertainties about who is a Nigerian citizen, and the extra-legal reliance on certification of ‘origin’ by a local government authority,” Bronwen Manby, an independent consultant on human rights, specialising in nationality and statelessness in Africa, told Biometric Update via email. “VerifyMe is stepping into this gap with a proposed solution that sidesteps these challenges in situations when it does not matter if a person is a citizen or which LGA they come from. But in the end, the citizenship issues will still need to be resolved.”

Despite Nigeria’s efforts to consolidate siloed agency databases and bring in national and international ID by governments and global organizations, it could be private companies like VerifyMe which can sidestep issues such as citizenship and work quickly to integrate these databases for day-to-day commercial services.

“In general, the functions of VerifyMe appear to be better suited for implementation by a government entity,” says Dr. Rutenberg, “In the absence of any government entity carrying out these functions, a private entity would need to be very closely monitored by government to ensure compliance with data protection laws and principles.”

The clear need for its services and weak regulation and enforcement mean there could be a successful future ahead for VerifyMe and its competitors as long as they can access the government-held databases.

“This is why we have advocated for an Independent Data Protection Institution in Nigeria against the posturing by the National Information Technology Development Agency which self-appointed itself as Nigeria’s data protection authority,” says Adegoke, “We knew it would just be business as usual and these developments have further confirmed our fears. We are going to intensify our advocacy for a data protection law setting up an independent data protection commission, in addition to our advocacy for the Digital Rights and Freedom Law in Nigeria.”

But the money, and funding mechanisms look likely to keep their focus on issuing ID and finding ways to make these projects useful rather than data privacy. Even with its reliance on formal ID to build its profiles, VerifyMe Nigeria should stand to benefit from that $433 million World Bank funding to take the number of Nigerians with a national ID number to 100 million in the next few years.

Contacts for the address verification agents were provided to Biometric Update by VerifyMe Nigeria.

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