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Researchers, advocates make case for more inclusive digital ID systems in ID4Africa Livecast

Researchers, advocates make case for more inclusive digital ID systems in ID4Africa Livecast

Researchers on digital ID-related issues as well as digital rights advocates and civil society campaigners have deplored existing gaps that give room for the exclusion of citizens or communities from digital identity systems across the world.

These stakeholders shared their views during a recent Livecast by ID4Africa which took place under the theme; “The dark side of identity: mitigating the risks.” This was the first in a series of three programmed episodes on the same topic.

The idea of the virtual series is to explore the downside of digital identity and the impact that has on society, while also suggesting ways through which some of such shortcomings can be corrected in building more inclusive systems and also guaranteeing people’s social and human rights.

This episode had six segments which included an expository documentary; two panel discussions delving into the root causes of digital ID exclusion with case studies from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), Brazil and Kenya; a one-on-one session with the Executive Director of Uganda’s National Identification and Registration Authority; a case study which assessed the rights and risks of 10 African ID systems, as well as a feature presentation which looked at the impact of race and gender on biometric performance.

The expository documentary, which opened the virtual event, highlighted some of the problems with ID systems across the world. This was done through the views of some researchers and activists working on ID issues on the field, from countries such as Kenya, Sierra Leone, Argentina, India, Pakistan, and the United States.

After this came the case study segment which looked at the state of digital ID and the foundational ID systems in Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

A study carried out by Research ICT Africa (RIA) and the Center for Internet and Society (CIS), and presented during the Livecast by Yesha Tshering Paul from CIS, was used to underline some of the issues with the ID systems of these countries.

The problem with ID systems

Explaining the highlights of the study, the CIS official said they found that a colonial legacy of population control systems in many countries continues to have a clear impact on contemporary approaches to digital ID. She said some of the systems lack a larger strategic vision, while issues around private actor involvement in the ecosystem and risk of exclusions were also prominent.

Yesha Tshering Paul went on that most of the countries surveyed were found to have an enabling legislative framework to support the establishment of a digital ID system. But while in some countries the digital ID system is being rolled out alongside a national data protection law, the latter is not always effective or implemented.

The study, she said, also noted low levels of accountability and transparency, and the tendency to make digital IDs directly or indirectly mandatory for access to government or private services without providing for alternative means of identification, thus leading to exclusions. She also mentioned some of the infrastructural and social factors that cause digital ID exclusion.

Going further, Tshering Paul said it emerged from the study that most of the ID systems studied do not impose enough accountability on the administration of the system, requiring instead that ID holders go through lengthy and inadequate recourse mechanisms.

The absence of mitigation strategies to account for system failure, and of a well-implemented and effective data protection law to address any gaps left by the ID governing law while adding a second layer of accountability for digital ID administrators, were also among the issues unraveled.

Tackling the issues

The study of the 10 ID systems suggests, among other things, the need for a collaborative approach involving different stakeholders; the availability of analogue or alternative forms of identification to account for infrastructural constraints; avoiding the mandatory use of digital IDs as a way of reducing the risk of exclusion; and specifically accounting for vulnerable sections of the population while formulating policy. This means taking into consideration issues around gender sensitivity, alternatives for enrolment documentation, more adaptable birth registration laws and awareness campaigns for staff and beneficiaries.

Facial recognition, race and gender

The key findings of another research on race and gender bias in biometric systems were also shared in the course of the Livecast.

Speaking on this, Dr. Yevgeniy Sirotin of SAIC Identity and Data Sciences Laboratories — a body that works to mitigate risks associated with face recognition technology deployments – said all tested face recognition algorithms in their study clustered people by race and gender.

He said race and gender clustering accounted for only 10 percent of the total non-mated score variation, which implies that face recognition will likely still be useful even without using race and gender as demographic features.

Digital ID, social and human rights

Other interventions from researchers and activists from the human rights and civil society worlds suggested ways by which digital ID systems should be built so as to empower social and human rights.

Christian van Veen and Katelyn Cioffi from the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU School of Law, and Dorothy Mukasa from Kenyan digital rights advocacy group, Unwanted Witness, all expressed concerns about exclusion which is one of the shortcomings of many existing digital ID systems.

Rosemary Kisembo from Uganda’s NIRA also came on to share her views. To her, digital ID systems should be designed while taking cognizance of the culture of the people, while also engaging in useful partnerships.

Case studies of overcoming digital exclusion

The last segment of the Livecast looked at case studies of digital ID exclusion in Brazil, Kenya and the IOM.

Janaina Costa, a lawyer and researcher at the Institute of Technology and Society (ITS), spoke about the Brazil case and how the authorities have handled the situation. She said in its efforts to overcome exclusion, the country understood the importance of having digital and traditional identification mechanisms coexist, and the need to allow individuals to have alternative means for identification and choices in how they identify themselves.

By this, she meant the necessity of putting in place a multi-channel platform of access to services (that means digital first, not digital only), and the importance of addressing the existing gaps in traditional identification systems.

The experience in Kenya on digital exclusion was shared by an official from Namati — an organization working with community partners to help Kenyans secure identity documentation and help end citizenship discrimination in the country.

“Identity right is the right to have rights,” the official said, arguing why every citizen must be covered by digital identity initiatives. He said their work consists in carrying out advocacy roundtables and trainings for Kenyan communities on the importance of IDs. He added that they have also used data-driven advocacy to demonstrate to the government in Nairobi why it is important to close exclusion gaps in the country’s digital ID system. He mentioned geographical exclusion as one of the problems in Kenya as people who live in communities that are far off from ID registration centers are often left out.

The last intervention in this episode came from a representative of the IOM who spoke about challenges related to immigration and border management.

The second episode of this ID4Africa Livecast series is scheduled for December 1.

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