December 7, 2020

Reflections on Surveillance, Digital ID & Privacy (by Grace Bomu)

Digital IDs are representation of a person in digital form.  African countries are rolling out digital ID systems that not only identify people as citizens or residents of a country but are also required to access government services. As was discussed during this workshop, market philosophies have influenced digital ID in various ways: First, digital IDs datafy personal information, making every person a form of goods that can be traded. Second, some of the rationales for digital ID borrow ideas such as cost effectiveness and efficiency in service delivery. Third, the implementation of digital ID systems relies on existing private sector systems such as mobile telephony data as well as services of private contractors who provide the software, hardware and infrastructure for digital ID.


Isaac Rutenberg set the tone for the discussion by explaining the rapid rise of digital IDs in the continent. They are implemented in various ways, often integrated with existing private and public sector systems, including, financial, mobile networks and social service systems. He invited panelists to reflect on new issues arising from the systems.


From a political science perspective, Nanjala Nyabola analysed how digital IDs change the balance of power. Traditionally, this balance was between the government and citizens but with digital ID, corporations had gained so much power that it was more realistic to analyse the balance as among the citizen, state and corporations. Taking the case of Kenya, Nanjala showed how corporations had gained surveillance power as had the state. However, the citizen, especially the marginalised ones, had less and less power. For example,  huduma namba,  gives the state more access to personal information about the citizen, and also allows corporations to verify citizens and in the process collect data about them. However,  it was impractical for the citizen to opt out of the system, and the citizen could not easily complain or get redress for misuse of their personal data.


Jaqueline Musiitwa explored the problem from a development lens, sharing some of the rationales for linking of digital ID with government services. These include lack of accurate information on the population, presence of refugees and migrants as well as corruption that had resulted in wastage of public funds for example where government paid ghost workers. She also shared experiences from the digital ID project in Uganda where challenges included other competing interests that also needed government funds, lack of infrastructure and power, a significant refugee population and use of coercion to register people on digital ID.


Further insights from Uganda were shared by Dorothy Mukasa, whose organisation, Unwanted Witness, had documented digital ID process. They observed exclusion at various levels. For instance,  people whose biometrics could not be recognised, could not be enrolled or authenticated on the system. This was particularly challenging for the elderly and pensioners, who also face other challenges in accessing the physical spaces where government services are offered. In addition, Uganda had inequitable internet infrastructure and power supply, and this meant that people from some areas had to travel in order to access digital ID. These problems created an avenue for corruption where those with resources could pay for enrolment.


Issues of exclusion were also addressed by Anja Kovacs, who shared insights from the Indian digital ID project, Aadhar. Dr Kovacs also explained how viewing data as a resource, ignores the fact that digital ID data comes from bodies, and therefore personal data is related to idea of personal identity as well as social solidarity. At the same time, data when considered as a resource can be sold to private actors who repackage and resell it on the market. In government systems, this can happen without consent as governments have other basis for processing of data.


The panel also delved into some possible solutions or what would be better ideas for digital ID. Some of the key points included:

  • Inclusion of other points of view, voices and technologies in digital ID systems. Some of the other philosophies that provide frameworks for technology include feminist methodology which analyses how the most marginalised are affected by technology. Reframing of data as an extension of the body would also be important in incorporating dignity in digital ID programmes
  • Resolving of systematic and historical issues for example citizenship prior to making digital ID a means of accessing citizenship rights and benefits.
  • As the relationship between the state and citizen was fundamentally altered by technology, it was also important to regulate the use of data by the state and citizens, through among others, data protection laws and practices.
  • Creating more linkages between stakeholders in the digital ID space, for example donors, states, business and civil society organisations. This would bring into perspective the real impacts of digital ID systems that are rolled out by states with the help of donors and business.

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