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Trust lacking as African digital ID systems expand

digital identity biometric registration

A pair of editorials suggest that government digital ID initiatives in West Africa and East Africa are facing a shortfall in trust, which may hamper their rollouts and effectiveness.

A decision from Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari for the International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) numbers of phone users in the country to be captured by state authorities is raising suspicion about the real intent of the move, and whether stronger digital ID systems are enabling indiscriminate surveillance.

The instruction, contained in the recently published Revised National Identity Policy for SIM Registration, states that the Nigeria Communication Commission (NCC) is charged with the responsibility and must conclude that process within a period of three months, per local reports.

The federal government says the reason is to create what it calls a Centralized Equipment Identity Register (CEIR) or a Device Management System (DMS) which will serve many purposes including helping the government to enhance national security. It has however not explained how it intends to implement the policy in the coming three months, reports suggest.

The federal government has also justified the move by stating that it intends to reduce phone theft, facilitate the recovery or blocking of reported stolen phones, bring in more revenue for government, curb the rising tide of kidnappings for ransoms and other forms of criminality, among other reasons. According to the policy, phones whose IMEIs are not found in the DMS will not be allowed access to networks by local operators.

In the wake of this development, the reaction among Nigerians has been mixed. An editorial by Techpoint Africa takes a critical look at the issue and raises question about trust and whether this is a subtle move by the Nigerian government to closely monitor the activities of citizens and use their data for ulterior motives.

The article, written by Chimgozirim Nwokoma, argues that the move will “definitely have major implications for the entire nation if implemented.”

Nwokoma insinuates that just like the move to link the biometrics-backed National Identification Number (NIN) to SIM cards which the government initiated in December last year, the NCC IMEI policy smacks of a covert strategy by Nigeria to use citizens’ data for surveillance purposes.

The editorial states that although the government’s reasons for collecting the IMEI may appear genuine, fears about how the data will be used remain rife, citing the case of Saudi Arabia where the country’s government used IMEI numbers at some point to find the location of women who were fleeing abusive spouses. He also mentions a couple of countries which have been using IMEI data for various reasons, but notes that the purpose is not always negative as ITU statistics show similar policies in countries such as the UK and Turkey helped reduce the phenomenon of phone theft.

The Techpoint Africa articles alludes to some experts who are calling on the federal government to put in place safeguards and ensure they win sufficient trust of the people, especially in a context where the country has no comprehensive data protection law.

Do digital ID and biometrics entrench trust problems?

Meanwhile, in a write-up that examines issues similar to the Nigeria situation, renowned Kenyan writer Nanjala Nyabola delves into the aspect of trust in digital ID and biometric systems, arguing that such systems only make existing systemic biases harder to eliminate.

In the piece published on Rest of World, Nyabola acknowledges that although governments around the world hold that digitizing identities help in better identifying the needs of citizens, the technologies are only as good as enhancing values that already exist in the societies in which they are deployed.

“Digital identity systems will only make governments more efficient at what they are already doing. If a government is currently using its identity systems to discriminate against minorities and exclude them from power, then they will only become more efficient at that. A digital ID system cannot create values that don’t already exist in the society in which it is built and deployed. The digital will only intensify whatever momentum already exists in the analog,” a portion of Nyabola’s article states.

The writer mentions the case Kenya’s Huduma Namba biometric national digital ID scheme as an example, pointing out some of the inadequacies of the system, including how it reinforces government’s ‘marginalization’ of some minority groups such as the Nubians and Somali Kenyans.

The article recalls how Kenya went ahead with the digital ID project without putting in place the necessary safeguards to protect people’s data, and spent gargantuan sums of money that could have otherwise been funneled into on other critical government projects.

Nyabola fears that digital ID and biometric systems pose a serious threat to trust, which is one of the intangible things that make human society tick. To her, the digital health passes which governments around the world are looking to adopt in order to restore normal global travels, will only go further in intensifying division among peoples and communities, especially cognizant of the disparities in vaccine availability.

“If a state or a system has a reputation of coercion, surveillance, and oppression, a digital ID system won’t cure that; it may only make things worse,” Nyabola concludes.

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