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ID4Africa: the future of digital identity in the real and virtual worlds

ID4Africa: the future of digital identity in the real and virtual worlds

“What is your notion of digital identity?” may at first seem to be one of those futile questions in the sector and seized as a distraction. But not when asked by Dr. Joseph Atick of a panel of identity experts in the ID4Africa LiveCast Series Four Première, now available on YouTube. It is critical infrastructure, a human right, a source of power and agency.

The panel titled “Deconflicting the Many Notions of Digital Identity” in Episode 26 of the ID4Africa series brought together experts from national digital identity schemes, the UN, private sector and civil society to discuss digital identity in real-world and virtual or metaverse settings.

In or out of the metaverse, what will digital identity be?

“Whether you are a sceptic or a believer, it’s not difficult to see that such a world is going to require a trustworthy digital identity layer as the foundation of its infrastructure,” says ID4Africa executive chairman Dr. Joseph Atick on the concept of the metaverse. “What is this new digital identity? How can it be asserted? Who issues it and who has the authority to endow it with trust?… Government regulators will insist on some sort of link between our virtual and our official or legal identity.”

Atick asks what we can expect of digital ID, as people come to see the idea of decentralized self-sovereign identity with ways for holders to add attestations from entities such as schools to confirm elements of their identity as the option more in line with human rights.

“Digital identity isn’t just changing our notion of what digital id is and digital transformation, it’s changing our very perception of what identity is,” says Dele Atanda of MetaMe. He believes there is a confusion of identity and identifiability which is concerning from a human rights angle. Systems see identity as objective, but it is subjective in a modern world according to Atanda, resulting in conflict.

Niall McCann, Policy Advisor and Project Manager for Legal Identity at the UNDP, believes governments need to keep in mind some of the fundamentals of the registries which underpin identity schemes. His concern is that governments may spend less on birth and death registers if they are spending more on digital identity schemes.

“We feel that public confidence in the integrity of the identity system is then damaged by knowing that there are so many dead people still floating around in the database,” says McCann, who believes people should be able to authenticate their identities back to their births when they become adults.

Looking at a future where digital currencies become prevalent, McCann says, “I simply cannot imagine that if governments are going to start opening accounts for individuals at a central bank and have governments send money to that digital ID wallet that is held for them at a central bank, I simply cannot imagine a scenario where that identity – one where the individual directly interacts financially with the government – can exist alongside other identities such as passport databases or driving licenses or separate social security databases etc.

“It suggests to me that governments are going to be strongly trying to centralize identity systems even more.”

Kate Wilson from DIAL (Digital Impact Alliance) agrees that policy needs to ensure that digital identity continues to be tied to citizen registry and vital statistics, an approach which will involve controlling pace.

“This is actually about a national digital transformation journey. Digital ID is a fundamental first component that is at its heart,” says Wilson, “And as we do it, we need to talk about the products that are available and how you kind of roll them out in a crawl-walk-run way so you don’t look for some sort of big bang approach but you look for something that actually can be afforded and rolled out now.”

Maxine Most of Acuity Market Intelligence also sees digital identity as fundamental: “I think of it as critical infrastructure for the 21st century. We just cannot function as societies or communities without effective secure digital identity infrastructure.” People must be able to use it for both the digital and real world without giving up too much sovereignty.

Who is going to play the role of issuer?

Independent digital identity expert Adam Cooper believes governments have functioned as a source of trust and will continue to do so, albeit in a different way. “We need to separate out the issuance of credentials from the trust,” says Cooper.

“This isn’t about necessarily one identity to rule them all but it might be that there are certain trusted sources of who I am that you might trust over others,” he adds, saying that governments could provide the trusted element in credentials issued by others.

Atanda believes there is a role where somebody oversees how people interact with the state and any organization, but that legislation will need to determine what is allowable for identity, such as what a social media site can ask to access for authentication.

“This is all predicated under the assumption you can trust the government,” counters Most. “This is predicated under the assumption that some kind of federalization of government is defined as the trusted source. In the United States that’s absolutely not the case.”

On biometrics Most says that “there’s a responsibility incumbent on the developers of this technology to minimize the ability for the technology to be used in bad ways.” Trust in government can be based on a locality’s context and culture.

Anonymity in the metaverse

“I come at this from a human rights perspective: I do not think that you can have human rights in a digital world without some degree of anonymity,” states MetaMe’s Atanda, qualifying his idea that this may not be appropriate everywhere all the time, but needs to be in the model.

“Don’t underestimate your ability and the appeal to mask who you are, and your ability to mask who you are in the digital world in a way that is rapidly and vastly different than we have grappled with,” says Wilson, who spent a decade working in the video games sector.

Real-world addresses, metaverse coordinates as part of identity authentication

Will people be able to claim coordinates in a metaverse as their own virtual land? In current real-world settings, proof of address is still vital in digital identity authentication and KYC.

Adam Cooper points out that since the outset of the EU’s eIDAS discussions since 2014 on how identity works across the bloc, addresses have been an optional attribute. An address is just a point in time and rapidly becomes less useful.

Dr. Saurabh Garg from the UIDAI which operates Aadhaar says that address are mandatory for the scheme, but the mobile number is of paramount importance: “The mobile is the field that has really become necessary in order to be able to use Aadhaar as a financial address, in order to be able to do transactions, in order to be able to utilize it in a host of applications.

“So the mobile in a way in terms of the importance, I would say it’s become nearly as important as the Aadhaar number itself.”

And the UNDP’s Niall McCann warns that governments are going to work more closely on tracking their citizens’ locations to determine where they are and where they are working, in order to tax them appropriately, from laborers to digital nomads. This will lead to further centralization of data on individuals.

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