The history of biometrics in Africa is unique, as is its future. As Integrated Biometrics prepares to actively participate in this month’s ID4Africa conference, we caught up with one of the event’s founders, Dr. Joseph Atick, Executive Chairman, ID4Africa & Identity Counsel. Dr. Atick is an identity and biometrics pioneer, and trusted adviser and counsel to governments and international development agencies, helping the world adopt identity technology responsibly and for the common good.
Q: Why is biometrics so important to Africa?
A: Its value drives from the fact that civil registers throughout Africa have either not existed or they were destroyed in periods of prolonged conflict. They have been reduced to being incomplete, unreliable, and basically this leads to the state not knowing its people. This, in turn, has an impact on democracy whereby people cannot participate in elections, or they are not able to come forward and claim social protections.
Q: What is unique about the historical use of biometrics in Africa?
A: Biometrics in Africa is not like situations in developed countries which had centuries of registering their populations. African countries had no concrete information on who their people were, and about ten years ago began modest attempts at biometric censuses of population. These were accompanied back then with a lot of failure; Africa is a very challenging environment for the capture of biometric data from people. The early capture devices were unreliable, required a lot of power, would not work in sunlight, etc. The challenges were daunting. Still, biometrics provided a new beginning for Africa. The ability to create registries and enroll citizens uniquely allows Africa to count its people, acknowledge their existence, empower them and care for their needs.
Q: How are biometrics viewed by the general population in Africa?
A: Throughout Africa, people wholeheartedly accepted biometrics for the promise they offered. Letting government officials scan their fingers gives them a sort of assurance they would be counted and accounted for. At the end of the day, their concern was to exist; no issues were raised, and biometrics are viewed as an instrument of empowerment, not of control. In the west, reaction tends to be more negative. In developed countries we have alternatives; I don’t need biometrics to prove I exist, we have big data, my electronic footprint exists, etc. Westerners think electronic capture of their fingerprints might be excessive and expose them to certain privacy risks.
Q: To what do you attribute the differing viewpoints on biometrics?
A: The benefit of being accounted for is so large in Africa, the chance to be part of society is such a big benefit it outweighs any concerns people might have. When you look at what is the identity priority for different countries in the world, it’s related to the state of development they are in. When we look at nations for identity needs we look through the eyeglass of developing nations, middle income, and developed countries. In developing countries, the priority is to develop identity registries, and we see lots of biometrics census of the population going on or being planned. This seems to be universal throughout Africa, whether you’re talking about Nigeria, Tanzania, or Ghana, etc. they do engage in various types of biometric census of subpopulations. The middle income countries, on the other hand, are interested in improving the efficiency of their public service, through the introduction of more and more e-government services (or e-services). These streamline the process of interacting with the government and lower the cost of service delivery, and naturally they require digital identity. In developed countries, for the most part identification systems are well developed and e-services already exist. In these countries the commercial use of identity for facilitation is compelling that identity seamlessly integrates with the economics of daily life in sectors such as financial, healthcare and transportation. Thus you see different countries having different identification priorities, and for the most part they are not geographic, they are income and development scaled.
Q: What was the genesis of ID4Africa?
A: ID4Africa was born from the convergence of several initiatives. Over the last five years I had gone into Africa on several missions (in excess of 14) to assess current identity systems, understand challenges and advise authorities on their identification options. I found African countries were isolated with limited access to knowledge; in many cases because of lack of travel budgets or because of the inability to get Visas to travel to conferences in the West. So the idea of a movement that would promote knowledge and experience transfer in the domain of identity across the African continent was born. Practically speaking it meant instead of getting African authorities to conferences elsewhere, we would bring conferences to them. At the same time, APSCA, which is an association that has had long experience with identity events in Asia, saw the same need and was planning on launching a government forum on digital identity in Africa. So we joined forces and launched ID4Africa with an inaugural event in Tanzania. This year Rwanda is carrying the flames of identity knowledge forward with an event that promises to be double the size of the first one. The enthusiastic way with which Africa embraced ID4Africa demonstrates that this a timely movement with a very important mission.
Q: How have things evolved since the first ID4Africa?
A: Well, many exciting things are happening. Since our inaugural event, the UN has adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) which include goal 16.9 that calls for providing legal identity for all including birth registration by 2030. In a way this has become the mantra for ID4Africa going forward for the next 15 years. While SDG is clear as a goal, how to achieve it is far from clear and how to measure progress towards that goal remains a subject of active dialogue. This is the type of discussion that fuels the ID4Africa agenda these days. In addition we have launched an Ambassador program where each African nation gets represented through an ID4Africa Ambassador that acts as a liaison and keeps us in harmony with national identity agendas. In a way the movement is creating alignment with national priorities and is being shaped by Africans and for the benefit of Africa.
Q: What is in store at this year’s conference?
A: This year’s ID4Africa is for people who want practical knowledge. The conference theme is “Digital Identity: the practical guide” and aims to delve into what is required practically for authorities to launch responsible programs successfully. It features a series of Workshops in addition to plenary sessions that allow delegates to choose the track that most responds to their informational needs. This year it is about designing, building, launching and protecting successful identity programs in Africa, with or without biometrics as warranted.