Digital Identity – Unlocking the AfCFTA for Africans

As more and more of our data and personal information is uploaded to the growing ecosystem, it is essential to establish certain principles and strategies for the management of digital identities. This is especially the case as Africa’s digital transformation overlaps with the progressive realisation of an interconnected continent under the AfCFTA.

Through the day-to-day advancements in technologies and the ever-growing digitisation of life, digital identification systems are becoming progressively predominant worldwide. With the prevailing COVID-19 pandemic, the digitalisation of personal interactions, business transactions, and government operations has only been accelerated. In Africa, digital ecosystems are foundational to unlocking innovative opportunities and will certainly play an important role in the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

As more and more of our data and personal information is uploaded to the growing ecosystem, it is essential to establish certain principles and strategies for the management of digital identities. This is to, firstly, keep personal information safe, as well as to guide towards the efficient realisation of the potential benefits of an inclusive digital ecosystem. This is especially the case as Africa’s digital transformation overlaps with the progressive realisation of an interconnected continent under the AfCFTA.

Therefore, digital identification systems and the issues around them make for an increasingly urgent discussion topic.

What is a Digital Identity?

A simple description of a digital identity is: “an amalgamation of any and all attributes and information available online that can bind a [digital] persona to a physical person.”

The concept is based on the fact that a person’s real identity can be constructed from collecting and linking data on their digital footprint. This includes data on personally identifiable aspects such as “behaviours, social profiles, device information, location, search history,” which can provide a wider scope of identity-determining and tracking factors compared to physical identification such as your government-issued ID card. Digital identities link a specific person’s activities within the increasingly complex digital ecosystems to their real identity in the physical world. They can be useful credentials that grant people access to digital ecosystems and keep track of their activities. This implies the need to authenticate the link between someone’s digital identity and their real physical identity has to be.

Digital Identities and Data Protection

A common question related to digital identification is how much and what kind of information is enough to reliably authenticate links to a real person.

People access digital ecosystems through their devices, so a device such as your phone may be assumed to link to your digital ID. Behavioural data on activities tracked by a smartphone, such as online purchase patterns or navigation paths, can be used to separate their users into different categories or “types” and make surprisingly relevant suggestions. Even with these analyses, however, devices can be sold, stolen, or hacked and therefore link activities of completely different people to any presumed owner. Device ID alone may not determine a strong enough link to a specific individual to constitute a digital ID that is reliable enough for all possible purposes.

Authentication processes can be very different depending on the amount and type of data collected and the purpose of the digital identity. For example, a typical email account only requires a username and a password to create a digital persona that can send an email. Online bank accounts, on the other hand, require significantly more identity-verifying details such as your government ID, home address, and probably your email address as well. An email address on its own does not serve to identify a person well enough to link to something as important as a bank account; it can only be one component.

In the authentication process, the kind and amount of information collected about a person should, ideally, reflect the consequentiality of the activities anticipated. Stronger connections between a digital persona and a physical person make for more reliable and valuable digital identities. A responsible digital identification system must, however, balance the need to create reliable digital identities with the need to protect the rights of real people. This connects to two important data protection issues:

  • data minimalisation – the process should limit the data collected about a person to only that type and amount of data that is relevant and adequate to the purpose the data is being collected for;
  • data security – care should be taken to ensure that data is collected and stored through secure processes to prevent exposing personal information to unauthorised access or use.

Because of these considerations, digital ecosystem service providers have to shoulder a lot of responsibility in how they design and operate their systems. Despite this, digital ecosystems are not just a novelty with serious questions. In today’s world, digital identification is already in practice and is a practical and useful method to enable technological advancements. There are very good reasons to promote the responsible development of even more robust digital ecosystems in the modern world that make digital ID essential.

What can Digital Identities Help With?

Identity Gaps

Unfortunately, in the developing world, the World Bank Group estimates that 1.5 billion people are deprived of proof of legal identity, creating an identification gap that acts as a “serious obstacle to participation in political, economic and social life.” This obstacle is a limit to full participation in society, with basic rights and services such as legal protection, healthcare, social security, bank accounts, education, employment and voting being difficult to access without proof of identity.

By introducing digital identification systems, governments, businesses and citizens themselves can significantly reduce the cost of bridging these gaps. These would be through either the ability of Digital ID to reduce transaction costs, increase the efficiency of document processing, as well as drive innovation in service delivery.

Geographical Limitations

Even where traditional ID systems are strong, Digital ID enables innovations that can widen the scope of opportunities available in any area. It can, for instance, make it possible for expatriates to participate in elections, or for international students to attend their school of choice while living in their home countries.

Service Delivery Gaps

Digital identification makes it possible to easily prove we are who we say we are. It is the first step towards innovative digital platforms that bridge access gaps to essential rights and services. These can be especially useful in developing countries where digital ID can be, and currently is being used to improve access to government services, target and empower traditionally marginalised groups, increase financial opportunities and inclusion, and support access to healthcare for the deprived.

Furthermore, developing countries can combine digital identification systems and data protection principles with new technological advancements to move ahead of the game, and establish futuristic systems of identification, bypassing the traditional ones. This would give them an edge and the opportunity to allow them to develop faster than they were previously capable of.

Towards a Digital African Continental Economy

E-commerce platforms in African countries have been growing in number and profitability over the last decade, and it is not at all unreasonable to expect them to become increasingly pan-African. Transborder operations that leverage digital technologies stand to increase userbases for sellers and variety for buyers through e-commerce channels.

An estimated half of all Africans do not, however, lack any form of national identification. Even for those that do have IDs, state-based identification systems typically prioritise limited government interests (e.g., categorising the population and delivering basic services) instead of opening the population up to innovative services.

As a consequence, many African nations lack well-developed state-backed confidence systems to support robust continental digital service platforms. Digital identity systems, which are foundational to a sustainable digital economy, are crucial in allowing everyone to fully engage in the wider African society and economy.

For all the good that they promise, the most important aspect of digital identification systems is their amenability to innovative applications. Because of this, we can expect digital ecosystems to play a major role in enabling individual participation in an integrated continental economy and society under the AfCFTA.