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UrbanID consultant roots for tokenization as key digital ID security option

UrbanID consultant roots for tokenization as key digital ID security option

As concerns about identity theft and data misuse fill out following the fast adoption of digital identity especially in Africa, it is imperative for governments, businesses and enterprises to consider privacy-preserving identity management choices including tokenization.

This is the take of technology expert and consultant with UrbanID, a disruptive personal identity ecosystem company, Mannie Oyewole.

Oyewole shared his thoughts in an interview with Biometric Update on the margins of the 2024 ID4Africa AGM which took place in South Africa last month.

UrbanID had its PocketOne product on display at the event. This is a digital wallet built on a zero-knowledge architecture, which facilitates identity verification and authentication using decentralized technology.

In the interview, Oyewole speaks on a wide range of issues including the importance of decentralised ID and tokenization, the critical nature of data protection especially with the growing adoption of digital ID, and how Africa can better embrace generative AI, just to mention this.

Oyewole notes with satisfaction the fast pace of the transition to digital identity systems in Africa, saying it is the very foundation of every digital society. However, the way digital identity is managed to engender trust and transparency is where the focus should be, he says.

In this regard, he explains the work which UrbanID has done over the years with the Nigerian government to enable a system where ID verification happens in a decentralized manner, including with the use of tokens.

This, he says, makes it possible for individuals to share only the exact amount of data that is needed by any entity for a specific purpose or service.

“In 2018 or thereabout, there were several problems and challenges that revolved around data protection in Nigeria. So, there was a federal government policy which directed every third party such as telcos, bank, enterprises and organizations dealing with citizen data to comply with data protection regulations. This means these entities needed to put in place infrastructure to ensure that every data collected from citizens is secure and not shared with anyone else,” he recalls.

“This was a challenge as there was no technology to manage that entire process. So, UrbanID came into the scene, and later created a new product called PocketOne which was on exhibition at the ID4Africa AGM.”

Limiting data shared with third parties is vital

Oyewole says their product was designed to enable limited data sharing. To illustrate the importance of this practice, he paints a scenario of a citizen who goes to a telco to purchase a SIM card. The telco asks for the individual’s ID card which contains a lot of information including their father’s and mother’s name.

“They get all sort of information about you. They take it and offer you the service. Now, whatever they do with your data, you don’t know. Who is privy to it, you don’t know,” he says.

In order to limit the amount of dada shared either through physical or remote identity verification processes, Oyewole says UrbanID uses tokenization.

“What we have done digitally is we have been able to tokenize the ID. We worked with the [Nigerian] government to ensure that all government-issued IDs should be tokenized and then developed in an app.”

“This app has multiple features. Once citizens are enrolled and their biometric data captured, the information is stored as the NIN, which is the detail that any enterprise can deal with during any transactions,” says Oyewole.

“With our digital ID framework, we were able to build an ecosystem where the enterprise can have a presence on the platform, the individual can also have a presence on the platform, and documents such as IDs can be verified in a secure, and controlled environment.”

For a scenario such as buying a SIM card which he painted earlier, Oyewole says the telco “doesn’t really need your mother’s or father’s name.”

“They don’t need all the information on your ID card to sell you a SIM card. All they need to know is that you are a registered and valid citizen of the country. So, once the government has already registered your biometrics in its database and you have been able to successfully upload your digital ID, you can begin to access government services or third-party services digitally without having to compromise your identity.”

He adds that what UrbanID helps to do is that “you don’t need to send all of your details to the service provider, which could be MTN for example.”

“Rather than send all the details, you generate a virtual NIN which is specific only to MTN. Once this is generated, it is on MTN’s account and they are the only ones who can use it. If a third party intercepts that, they cannot use it. And once MTN has used it, it expires in about three days.”

Apart from this, he mentions that “the transaction is recorded and registered on the blockchain,” which is one of the most secure technologies. This makes it possible that “for forensic purposes, as a user or ID holder, you are able to tell where and who checked your ID, what time did they check it, and what purposes they checked your ID for.  In the digital space, this has given power and ownership back to the ID holders.”

To Oyewole, “tokenization is now becoming a new adoption for digital ID verification solution providers because tokenization, in its own form, is a cyber security aspect by design.”

As an example of how vital tokenization is for digital ID, Mastercard said recently that it plans to tokenize all digital transaction in Europe by 2030.

Digital ID, first framework for digital governance

According to the expert, efforts by African governments to embrace tech generally, including digital ID and generative AI, is laudable, but it is crucial to go a step further in ensuring these digital systems sufficiently earn the trust of those who are supposed to use to interact with them.

“Digital ID, or even basic identification where governments can be able to identify their citizens, is the first framework for digital governance,” he notes.

“When you are able to know the demography of the people, this can help you better distribute government services or grants, and better interact with your people. With a digital identity layer, you are able to get data-driven visuals for decision-making.”

Oyewole says while he cannot over-emphasize the pressing need for countries to begin to digitize their national IDs, the issue however is trust.

“How do you trust a digital document? How do you trust the digital space? You have to be sure of who you are discussing with, or sharing information with, so that your information is not proliferated for the wrong purpose.”

Notwithstanding, he opines: “The adoption of digital ID is so important that we cannot circumvent it. My take is that governments across Africa should begin to look at compliance and controls especially when it comes to data privacy, ownership and user consent management. They can do this by partnering up with ID solution providers.”

Understand AI first, embrace with caution

Talking about AI which is increasingly gaining a prominent place in the global digital identity discourse, Oyewole says while it comes with huge rewards, there are risks that belie it.

“Before you embrace anything, you need to know about it. I can call ten people now at random and ask them to explain what generative AI is, and they may not know.”

“As much as governments are encouraging people to embrace AI, they should also encourage symposiums to teach people about what AI does, what AI is, how it can be used, its risks and rewards. In understanding that, they can better build frameworks that will guide the adoption and use of the technology,” says Oyewole.

Speaking about technology adoption generally, the consultant says “Africa is doing great,” although “there are still many gaps to be filled.”

“In the western world, the ease and adoption of technology is so fast. Although the pace is slow in Africa, the continent is making huge jumps into the technological space through creating hubs like sandboxes, hubs for tech startups, and so on. There is a wide range of problems which technology can solve across Africa.”

“We still have challenges in agriculture, power generation and power distribution. There’s an abundance of renewable energy we are not even tapping into. There are so many natural minerals we have that when you integrate with technology, you will be able to provide services that will benefit the citizens and benefit the state.”

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