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South Africa misses out on digital identity possibilities

Read time 5min 10sec

The South African government is missing out on the infinite opportunities presented by the mass adoption of a digital identification (ID) system, or eID system, by its citizens.

This is according to ICT industry insiders, who believe that as the COVID-19 pandemic persists across the globe, countries with an eID system in place are reaping the benefits of this merging technology through providing citizens with efficient interconnected e-government services.

Perceived as one of the most significant technology trends of 2020, a digital ID is a legal biometrics-based equivalent of an individual's identity card, which can be used to prove an individual's identity and verify their profession, providing them the right to access information or services online or physically.

Today, more than 70 countries have set up a national eID scheme in an effort to digitise government services for citizens, while seamlessly enabling access to private sector services such as insurance, banking, travel and healthcare.

The United Nations and World Bank envision that by 2030, every individual in the world will have a digital identity, which holds the power to unlock more inclusive digital economies by enabling digital trade, increasing access to government services and elevating political accountability.

IDs have been on the agendas of many emerging economies for quite some time now, with an estimated one billion people in developing countries still lacking proof of any legal identity, according to the UN.

Tshepo Magoma, digital identity fellow at digital ID application Yoti, says the issue of digital identity should form part of SA’s political dialogue, as digital identity technologies should be perceived as a necessity in helping to curb the spread of COVID-19, assisting in the fight against fraud and monitoring the influx of undocumented foreigners in SA.

“SA became one of the first countries in Africa to swiftly embrace the wave of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). However, the lack of awareness and adoption around digital identity is overwhelming and disheartening, especially for a country that aims to develop a 4IR strategy.

“We need to adopt eIDs as part of our focal strategy to fight corruption both in the public and private sectors. Digital identities thus need to be incorporated across sectors and in all learning curriculum in the education sector,” notes Magoma, speaking in his personal capacity.

In terms of using a digital ID system to help in the fight against COVID-19, Magoma references the UK, where the National Health Service in England has deployed a secure digital ID card that puts employees’ ID on their phone, providing them with the ability to access other healthcare services and verify that they work in the healthcare sector.

Tshepo Magoma, digital identity fellow at Yoti.
Tshepo Magoma, digital identity fellow at Yoti.

Identifying missing connections

While some local technology firms have introduced various forms of biometric technologies for identity verification systems, Magoma believes the technology is used in pockets of isolation, rather than as part of an interconnected ecosystem of services in both the public and private sectors.

“I envisioned a society where I no longer need to carry my passport nor my driver’s licence as well as an ID – an inter-connected society whereby, when I am stopped by a traffic cop, I can easily pull up my phone to show the traffic cop my e-licence stored in an app and where the officer can also verify it with an end-system that can detect its originality without just gazing at it,” he explains.

“I predict that in a few years from now, a lot of companies will join the helm to fight digital fraud in Africa, as it’s an immediate compelling business case that can be applied across all the 53 African states due to its high rate of technology adoption.” It’s particularly needed due to the exponential growth rate of digital fraud, he adds.

Arthur Goldstuck, head of World Wide Worx, says judging by government’s lack of urgency in enabling digital advancement in the country, it is highly unlikely SA has a structured digital identity strategy in place.

“The fact that the spectrum needed for high-speed mobile broadband has been lying fallow for 15 years, tells us that digital enablement is not a priority for government.

“While the State Information Technology Agency has a cloud-based strategy for enabling government departments digitally, it is implemented in a haphazard manner across various departments, with no cohesion and no clear strategy for digital transformation. It would come as a surprise, then, if there were a formal digital ID strategy in place. It is certainly an element of long-term thinking about a digital future,” Goldstuck points out.

He believes SA can learn many lessons from forerunners such India, which has implemented the Aadhaar biometric ID system, a 12-digit identity number based on biometric and demographic data collected by government, which links bank accounts, SIM cards and pensions, among others.

Mindaugas Glodas, CEO of IT firm NRD Companies, says digital ID systems are a prerequisite for developing functional e-governance platforms.

The COVID-19 pandemic has re-emphasised the importance of eIDs in providing social, medical and financial support to households and businesses.

“The pandemic has put electronic identification at the top of the priority lists of many developing countries. It has become a necessary component of digital transformation initiatives for governments around the world, ensuring the transparency, security and efficiency of e-public services they are eager to deliver to citizens.”

As emerging nations tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and rebuild their economies, they have a unique opportunity to use the crisis as a springboard. The importance of eIDs will only grow in the coming years, adds Glodas.

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