How unique digital identity numbers can help to securely deliver services remotely

Last updated: 11 December 2020

Unique digital identities have become a key form of identification for citizens globally due to the convenient, fast and secure access to public and private services they offer. Many African countries for example have been implementing them as part of their national identity programmes. The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly emphasised the need to accelerate the deployment of unique identities to allow citizens to access the social and economic benefits they’re entitled to.  

The ID4Africa movement recently ran a dedicated webinar on this topic, shining a spotlight on unique digital identity numbers as a way to deliver services remotely in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In this post, I am going to recap some of the main points discussed including whether there should be one unique identity number used by all stakeholders or if different sectors should be allowed to create their own identifiers.  

Weighing the risks and opportunities  

While various points of view were shared, there were two distinctive sides taken around the opportunities and risks of having a unique digital identity.   

The main benefit of unique digital identity numbers is that governments can implement one central identification system that can be used across all administrative entities. Furthermore, it will provide them with the opportunity to offer services to the private sector, generating additional income for the state. It will also allow them to link information from siloed data sources in a simple and secure way, while allowing each individual to access the rights that are attached to their unique identity.  

The panellists’ main concern with implementing unique identifiers is that they could potentially be used for malicious purposes by stakeholders. For this reason, in France for example, it is forbidden to use an individual’s social security number as an identifier to avoid discrimination.  

During the ID4Africa webinar the panellists also discussed the notion of tokenization which allows the use of a virtual copy of unique identifiers; however, this could require both individuals and the state to spend significant time doing admin. To make it simpler, sectorial identifiers can be used to limit the interoperability between sectors such as health, education, and law enforcement, which could otherwise result in personal data being kept in silo. This way the individual stays in full control of their data and they have the right to decide who can have access to it.  

How can citizens safely enjoy the benefits of unique identity numbers? 

If properly handled, interoperability of databases can offer great opportunities to empower populations, which is the ultimate goal for developing countries. This statement was highlighted by Aimé-Martial Massamba, Deputy Project Director National Biometric Register IBOGA for the Ministry of Interior in Gabon during the webinar, who mentioned that having a unique identity is necessary in order to offer accurate services to the population and fight identity fraud. 

To make sure that citizens can safely enjoy the benefits of a unique identity, governments need to implement a technical solution that is interoperable and responsive to the diverse needs of all users while safeguarding data privacy, security and user rights. Personal data protection is a MUST and there should not be any exceptions no matter the use case.    

One available solution is the use of ALIAS identification numbers. ALIAS refers to a token that is not limited to the generalisation of virtual clones of a unique number, but can be any existing or generated identifier for permanent or temporary usage. It works on a similar principle to virtual payment cards where the card and the information that comes with it can be revoked after a certain period of time. An ALIAS identification number could be:   

  • A registration number given at birth or at identity registration 
  • An existing number, like a social security number. This use case is particularly important when managing migration from an old identity system to a new one, helping to manage the transition to new identifiers 
  • A token used in specific sectors and with a defined duration, such as those used as part of India’s AADHAAR system 

Importantly, alias identification numbers can put the control back in the hands of individuals by allowing them autonomy over their personal data and to decide who can see the link between identifiers. 

Therefore, there is no need to choose between one unique identifier and several, it’s possible to have both at the same time and enjoy their benefits while mitigating the risks. 

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