The role of mobile in creating a digital identity system for everyone

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With about 1 billion people lacking legal identification worldwide, countries are increasingly turning to digital identification systems. In this interview [via ITU News], Yasmina McCarty, head of mobile for development at GSMA, explains how mobile operators can help make these digital identity systems transparent, secure and inclusive.

What are the benefits of digital identity?

Yasmina McCarty, head of mobile for development at GSMA

Yasmina McCarty: In order to fully participate in today’s digital economies, individuals need to be able to digitally identify themselves, both online and offline. Having a recognized form of digital identification allows access to life-enhancing services, including healthcare, financial services, education and social benefits, tax declaration and voting.

It is not surprising that United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 16.9 calls for a legal identity for all, including birth registration, by 2030.

Many developing countries are currently planning or implementing digital transformation strategies to make their administrative and governance processes more efficient, transparent and accessible.

We strongly believe that a robust and inclusive digital identity ecosystem is a prerequisite for accelerating such transformation and achieving these objectives, and as such the GSMA has been one of the key contributors in the development of the Principles on Identification for Sustainable Development [PDF] – the outcome of an initiative led by the World Bank and currently endorsed by more than 20 global organisations.

Why are mobile operators uniquely positioned to advance digital identity?

Globally, mobile connects more than five billion people, which is a platform with unmatched reach. Mobile operators deal with consumers directly and safeguard their data, building trust by often going beyond what local privacy and data protection laws require. Additionally, mobile operators have established relationships with local regulators.

We believe that mobile operators can leverage their established reach and their customer relationship management experience to play a number of roles in identity ecosystems:

  • Partner with governments to support enrolment of residents into new digital identity systems, by leveraging their retail presence and widespread agent networks;
  • Assist with the digitalisation of legacy physical ID-systems;
  • Validate existing identity credentials against government databases, where these exist, to strengthen ‘Know Your Customer’ processes; and
  • Enable their customers to create digital profiles linked to their phone number, location or top-up history, to gain access to useful online services.

How can mobile operators support digital identity efforts?

The GSMA Digital Identity program, established in 2015, works with public and private sector entities, NGOs and the donor community to understand and explore the roles that mobile operators could play in the digital identity ecosystem, and has developed a wealth of insights, research and policy best practices from across the globe.

Through our Digital Identity program, we are keen to share our insights and recommendations with policymakers, by hosting in-country capacity building courses and convening workshops with relevant stakeholders, to demonstrate the role of mobile and encourage sustainable partnerships.

An example of a digital authentication platform, built on mobile, is Mobile Connect – a global, open and common framework developed by the GSMA in cooperation with leading mobile operators. It provides a single consistent interface to support authentication, authorisation, identity and attribute-sharing or verification for service providers, and adopts the principle of privacy by design.

Of course, the ability of mobile operators to play this role depends on the creation of enabling policy environments that encourage public-private partnerships and consumer trust.

While mobile phones empower digital participation, as of January 2018 governments in 147 countries require mobile users to present proof-of-identity when registering for a prepaid SIM card in their own name. GSMA research found that where such policies exist, mobile penetration is often directly proportional to the official identity penetration coverage in a country.

What are some examples?

We recently worked with Telenor Pakistan, who collaborated with UNICEF and the provincial governments in Sindh and Punjab, to test how a new mobile-enabled digital birth registration process could effectively replace the traditional paper-based model. The targeted districts saw registration rates increase by an average of 200% during an initial four-month pilot.

Tigo Tanzania led a similar effort. Birth registration is the first step in establishing a robust civil registration system and can help secure access to vital services and protect against exploitation or abuse.

In Nigeria, we are currently exploring how mobile operators can support the enrolment of millions of Nigerians into the new National ID scheme, leveraging their retail presence nationwide and their ability to reach over 70 million unique customers who are currently using their networks.

Moving forward, what are the main opportunities in this space?

An estimated 1 billion people lack formal identification, predominantly in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. These vulnerable people – including forcibly displaced populations – are unable to access basic services, such as acquiring a mobile SIM card or opening a bank account, to participate in society. In fact, 20% of adults cite lack of identification as a key barrier to financial inclusion.

Through our research, we have concluded that there are five key factors that governments should consider in order to accelerate a mobile-enabled digital identity ecosystem:

  • Establish an accessible and inclusive digital identification system to ensure that all citizens and residents can obtain a government-recognised identification, including vulnerable groups such as those living in remote locations, women and girls, and forcibly displaced persons;
  • Maintain robust and ‘query-able’ identification databases, to improve the effectiveness of a SIM registration policy, where mandated;
  • Ensure early-stage industry participation when designing digital identity ecosystems, to drive consensus on technical standards;
  • Drive demand, adoption and usage of innovative and interoperable digital identity solutions and the use of eGovernment portals; and
  • Create effective privacy and data protection frameworks to build all-important trust in digital identity ecosystems.

The original version of this article first appeared in ITU News

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