Taking up the challenge of digital identity, one step at a time

By Adèle Cibo

Access to identity is a fundamental right. To ensure this right, facing a challenge of hypoconnectivity, Nigeria, as India, the UK or Estonia, has been working on the development of its digital identity. The West African giant launched its national eID chip-based card in 2014. While the World Bank estimates that over 50 % of the population still don’t have proper identification documents, the country keeps working towards improvement. The harmonization process, one of the core challenges of foundational identity in Africa, is being dealt with head on. The National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) has already harmonized more than 30 million identities, digitally. Its goal is to cover the whole population (191 million) by 2021.

Taking a leap of faith towards digital identity

Identity is linked to development. With proper and recognized ID documents, tourism is made possible and commerce can thrive”, believes Joseph Atick, Executive Chairman and founder of the ID4Africa movement. Studies tend to prove him right. According to a report published by McKinsey Global Institute in April 2019, the development of digital identity could mean economic growth.1 Nigeria could thus see an increase of up to 7 % of its GDP by 2030. This potential growth might encourage some states to bet on digital solutions faster than expected. Out of the 7.6 billion people of Earth, while 1 billion people still have no legal form of ID, only 3.2 billion have some form of ID that includes a digital trail, leaving 3.4 with a mere form of ID. French citizens are part of the latter ; and it’s not for lack of trying.

Discussions surrounding digital identity in France have not just started. Even though the 2010 attempt at implementing a single data base for basic citizens information, accessible to police forces, was stopped by the Constitutional Council, the mindsets have evolved since then. One after the other, Cour des Comptes and CNIL voiced their recommendations for the development and implementation of a digital ID card. They were finally heard in 2018, when the government appointed Valérie Péneau, in charge of the inter-ministerial program for digital identity. The mission may have been delayed, but the actors involved are still mobilized to reach its original goal. As Coralie Héritier – CEO of IDnomic and co-leader of the digital identity project for the CSF Industries de Sécurité – sets out, “The mission still aims at giving French citizens digital identities derived from a citizen ID, so they can have alternatives to existing ID (such as the ones delivered by Facebook, Twitter, etc.) which are only relatively trust-worthy. This will enable them to have access to public services and possibly other kinds of services.”

France cannot hide behind lack of regulations anymore. The risk for data privacy may have been legitimate in the early 2010s, but the adoption of the GDPR across the EU in May 2018 sorted out most of the fears that could have slowed down the process. The will for transparency and respect of consent and privacy over data is now well diffused in Europe and France is no exception. It is even harder to stall the process when the eIDAS regulation, adopted in 2014, made mutual recognition of digital identification means mandatory. If France is committed to help fighting against fraud around the development of a digital identity system that could end up merging with the other members’, it must move forward ; even more so when the European deadline to deploy a secure digital ID solution – according to the ruling that is currently being discussed in the European Parliament – has been set to April 2021.

Relying on the existing and efficient technology

National operators are not the only actors that are ready for digital identity. The industrials have been working on the solutions and the technologies for a long time. “The French industrials are ready! What we need now is the political drive to give the go-ahead. Each actor is ready to collaborate and the time has come for one of them to take the first step and put all this into motion”, reaffirms Coralie Héritier. In the meantime, French companies are helping other states develop their digital ID. IDnomic sells its Citizen ID solutions to Morocco, Albania or Gabon, while Gemalto, which newly joined Thales and his also a key actor of the CSF, has been involved in the development of eID technologies in Moldova, Senegal, Belgium or Nigeria.

In France, digital identity is also part of many citizens’ lives ; except it has not replace their plastic-wrapped-paper ID card… yet. Instead, the smart chips, or mobile apps (with two-factors authentication systems) they own help them physically enter their workplace and digitally access their companies’ systems.

The French industrial expertise and the habits the individuals developed around digital ID solutions are not just signs of a technological head start. They are likely to drive the inevitable partnership needed between the public and the private sectors. As Joseph Atick points out, “for identity to be useful, it has to be used. Whether it is for getting a passport, opening a bank account, enrolling children into schools or having access to social and health services, it requires actors working together”. As a result, the Secure Identity Alliance (SIA), the GSMA and the World Bank “see increased potential for public-private collaboration in building digital identity ecosystems.” Indeed, the governments may outsource parts of the digital ID building to the private sector, readier. They also must collaborate to ensure the interoperability of official IDs with private services – whether it aims at assisting to pay for groceries, take the train or book one’s next trip. “Adding digital ID elements to citizen ID is part of the French objectives, even though the priority is given to the development and deployment of the national digital identity card, to comply with the European rules”, reminds Coralie Héritier.

Looking for inspiration across Europe

Interoperability and portability have been the keys to success for national eID in many parts of Europe. While Estonia is always presented as a model – and it may well be – the Baltic country is far from being the only EU member to have successfully developed national digital ID. Moldova, unexpected actor in the eID ecosystem, has relied on the Estonian model to launch, in 2011, its own digital identity through PKI-enabled SIM cards. The project was made possible thanks to a public-private-partnership between the Moldovan e-government, the state-owned company Center for Special Telecommunications, which acts as the certification authority, and two mobile operators, as registration authorities. The World Bank, which reviewed the Moldovan solution as part of the ID4D initiative, considered that mobile eID worked in the Balkan state because it avoided duplication in its design, allowed one single signature for both individuals and legal entities and used both open standards and open APIs to ensure interoperability and easy inclusion of the private sector.

Opening standards is what preaches SIA with its brand new OSIA initiative (Open Standards Identity API). To the organization, for the interfaces to be interoperable and for new ones to be added to the existing systems, it must share standards. Harmonization is at stake. OSIA offers a layer of connectivity based on open standards. It aims at being adopted by states to dynamize and accelerate the development of digital identity for all. It will also enable full control over the citizens’ data, by the state. Indeed, closed-source-software used by some companies in developing countries – such as MOSIP in Morocco, conducted by the Indian Aadhaar – could jeopardize the independence of the latest. Since data is becoming a valuable financial asset, developing economies should make sure they keep their hands on theirs.

Together, and with the right energy, we will go further

For Joseph Atick, “there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution on the development of digital identity”. What works for Estonia, Italy, Slovenia or Moldova might not for France ; but it does not mean there is no inspiration to be found in these solutions at all. When it comes to developing a regional identity, for example, the on-going initiatives taking place in Africa could spear new ways of thinking as well.

The World Bank is currently working on the WURI program (West Africa Unique Identification for Regional Integration and Inclusion). It is designed to combat the lack of interoperability and harmonization in the African systems to, eventually, make it possible for the ECOWAS nationals to travel in the neighboring countries without having to endure heavy customs procedures. “A regional ID would enable tourism and commerce, which would lead to development. That is why ECOWAS is very interested in the project and is already developing biometrics ID cards – already operational in Senegal, and about to be in Nigeria, with 37 million people who now have a National Identity Number”, points out Joseph Atick. Indeed, the World Bank’s initiative could safely rely on Nigeria’s will to grow. The country’s commitment has been enhanced in April 2019 when it joined the Advisory Committee of SIA. There is no doubt that it will also be involved in the actions taken at the ID4Africa forum in Johannesburg this June. This edition could be one to add to the books : the round table of African Data Protection Authorities will launch. It could be a catalyst for the adoption of data protection laws across the continent. “The energy carries us through, and that’s what will make ID for all happen.”, Joseph Atick, the man behind this historic meeting, believes, agreeing with Coralie Héritier : : “The dynamics of the CSF, which fully supports the inter-ministerial mission for digital ID, and the mission itself are giving room for service suppliers to develop great initiatives. Their solutions will lead to the development of digital ID uses”.

Once the CSF hands its roadmap, it will benefit from the newly created CNI International. It will give the identity sector an opportunity to keep on being strongly represented abroad – such as in Uganda, which is currently developing the first arm of what could become a digital ID strategy, thanks to the biometric registration of its miners through the State Minister for Minerals Development – and finally thrive in France.

McKinsey Global Institute, Digital identification. A key to inclusive growth, April 2019

Online access : https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/McKinsey/Business%20Functions/McKinsey%20Digital/Our%20Insights/Digital%20identification%20A%20key%20to%20inclusive%20growth/MGI-Digital-identification-Executive-summary.ashx