AU releases interoperability framework to spur digital ID adoption, integration
The African Union (AU) has published a blueprint which is expected to ramp up the expansion of legal and digital ID in Africa and ensure that citizens “easily and securely access the public and private services they need, when the need them, and independently of their location.”
The 44-page document titled “The AU Interoperability Framework for Digital ID” sets out the continental body’s vision of supporting ID ecosystems that align with its vision of an integrated, prosperous and peaceful African continent, and which will drive stronger participation in the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement (AfCFTA).
The AU’s framework doesn’t call for a unified continent-wide digital ID system, but proposes a template for how existing systems in different countries can function in an interoperable manner as part of the push towards stronger continental integration and economic prosperity. It will also support inclusion and “participation in the wider digital economy and society and allow services to operate with greater trust and certainty.”
Online, offline ID verification will be facilitated
As part of the goal, the framework is intended to create a scenario that will make it possible for all Africans in any member state of the AU to be able to verify their identity online or offline to access a range of services available to them. The framework is also supposed to empower Africans to have greater and more effective control over their personal data such as biometrics and the ability to share only the minimum that is required for a specific transaction, and then strengthen trust and interoperability among foundational identity systems of AU member states.
The framework, published last month, is divided into three major sections. It spells out common requirements, minimum standards, governance requirements and alignment among legal frameworks. It also discusses the vision, objectives, scope and potential use cases of the framework, a high-level road map for the definition and implementation of the framework, as well as assumptions, challenges, risks to be tackled and recommended mitigation measures.
The AU writes in the framework’s executive summary that it shall “provide for a common standard at the continental level to represent, digitally, the proofs of identity issued by trusted sources from AU member states and to ensure interoperability throughout the continent.”
The framework suggests that “individuals who hold an ID from a national system will be able to obtain an interoperable digital credential for legal identity (IDC-ID) that will take the form of a verifiable claim,” and standards will be set for the interoperability framework that will define key aspects of the IDC-ID.
Technical specifications for the minimum dataset, cryptographic protections and data formats will be decided during the second phase of the implementation roadmap. W3C verifiable credentials and barcodes are specifically noted as possible data formats in the framework document. The second phase will also involve establishing a Trust Framework to govern the IDC-ID.
The use of biometrics is not yet specified, though the document notes that more than 70 percent of African countries currently collect biometrics as part of civil registration.
Optimists hope the AU’s framework could help drive up the adoption of legal and digital ID in a continent where several millions of people still find it difficult having access to private and public services either because they lack proper identification or they possess IDs that are not fit for purpose.
Framework seeks to address a myriad of challenges
The AU also says it is optimistic that this framework will be adopted and endorsed by all its member states, and hopes it will be useful in addressing a number of challenges related to identity such as exclusion risks, weak cybersecurity systems and risks related to personal data protection, lack of demand for ID often due to low trust levels, inadequate technical and financial capacities, insufficiency of data storage facilities, no availability of interoperable ID systems and a lack of appropriate governance and legislative guides, among others.
The AU Interoperability Framework for Digital ID is part of the body’s Agenda 2063, a strategic document which outlines Africa’s socio-economic development and transformation ambitions in the next 50 years, and which places a premium on legal identity for all. It is also drafted in consonance with the 2020-2030 Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa (DTS), a plan okayed in 2020 during the African Union Executive Council’s 36th meeting.
The release of the interoperability framework comes not long after the AU also published a Data Policy Framework, which presents data as an invaluable asset in the building of strong digital economies. The data framework comes as guide for a common vision, principles, strategic priorities and key recommendations to African countries as they work toward developing their national data systems.
Other digital ID interoperability efforts in Africa
Digital ID interoperability in Africa has also been of concern to multilateral partners like the UN. Last year, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), co-organized a regional consultative workshop in The Gambia in which representatives of governments, policymakers, experts, and stakeholders from Africa gathered to share thoughts on how digital ID interoperability can be achieved by harmonizing digital ID systems on the continent.
Discussants also examined aspects of identity such as the need to get the right policy and legal framework for digital identity, cybersecurity and the growing power of artificial intelligence, and the human rights dimension in the implementation of digital ID ecosystem projects.
Apart from digital identity interoperability, there has also been a proposal for African countries to have an integrated and harmonized civil registration and vital statistics system as a way of accelerating and streamlining birth registration on the continent.