Digital Identities

Design and Uses

A project of the Centre for Internet and Society, India
Supported by Omidyar Network India

Evaluating Digital ID in Africa

June 11, 2021

Written by Yesha Tshering Paul

The global push for national digital ID programmes highlights many critical concerns — many such ID programmes mandate the collection and storage of biometrics as the primary solution to establish and authenticate one’s identity (particularly in countries with weak legacy civil registration systems). The centralised storage architecture of many such programmes results in databases of sensitive information that can be exploited by malicious actors. A lack of clearly articulated and enforced controls around who can access this information, and how this information is processed, leaves scope for surveillance by both state and private actors, resulting in a chilling effect on civil liberties and greater potential for discrimination. Mandating the use of these IDs to access services and entitlements has resulted in documented instances of mass exclusions. With these concerns in mind, it is critical to adopt a rights-based approach and incorporate safeguards during the development and implementation of digital ID systems.

In 2019, the Centre for Internet and Society developed an Evaluation Framework for Digital Identity. This framework is a series of questions against which digital ID programmes across jurisdictions may be tested. It is intended to inform the trade-offs that must be made to ensure that rights are adequately protected and harms minimised at every stage. It comprises three kinds of tests – rule of law, rights-based, and risk-based.

Recently, many countries across the African continent have been sites of rapid deployment of national digital ID programmes, often without sufficient regulatory oversight or accountability, and in the absence of a clear governing framework. In order to gain deeper insights into the state of digital ID on the continent, CIS (with the support of Omidyar Network) has partnered with Research ICT Africa to work with local partners who will assess digital ID systems in ten African countries using our evaluation framework. The objectives of this grant are to:

  • Evaluate digital ID systems of ten countries using an evaluation framework.
  • Develop the ten organizations’/ partners’ ability to critically evaluate digital ID systems using a rigorous academic approach and peer-review mechanisms.
  • Create a public repository of African digital ID systems (“State of Africa ID”), a website with detailed notes on statutory, governance, and design elements of digital ID in the countries evaluated.

Our local country partners are: