The future of digital identity in South Africa by Gur Geva

For South Africans to truly embrace and reap the rewards of digital identity, accessibility and security are two critical factors government and other essential service providers must consider
The future of digital identity in South Africa by Gur Geva
Gur Geva

When it comes to accessing essential services, such as national medical care, grants and the ability to vote in elections to shape national policy, a valid identity document is critical. In South Africa, undocumented citizens are restricted in their ability to collect social grants or go to a hospital. Even those with valid IDs spend hours in queues owing to inefficient and protracted identification processes.

Faster, digitised services would have a transformative impact on the level of financial inclusion of the country’s citizens. iProov’s report, Unlocking financial inclusion with digital identity and biometric verification,” emphasises that digital identity programmes open essential pathways for the unbanked and disenfranchised to access financial and welfare services and, in the case of governments, offer a reduced administrative burden and increased economic growth.

In theory, the positive impact is evident, but how can South Africa with its infrastructural challenges and high levels of inequality put this verification system into practice?

The challenge of digital identity in South Africa

An estimated 500 million people in Africa are living without any form of valid legal identification. In response to this crisis, the African Union Commission is working on an initiative to develop an interoperability framework for digital identity. The need for this is clear.

In South Africa, for example, lengthy identification processes see citizens queueing for up to three hours to renew a driver’s license. Many people leave their homes in the dark and queue from dawn for their social security grants only to be turned away when the queue is cut because of system failures.

The future of digital identity in South Africa by Gur Geva
South Africans queuing to get driver’s license

In an address to Parliament, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, Minister of Home Affairs of South Africa, states that the main reason for the long queues lies in the State Information Technology (SITA) system often being down. The DHA relies on SITA for connectivity, especially in rural villages. Branch Appointment System (BAPS) kiosks that facilitate the live capture of IDs and passports have been set up to bridge this gap. While these efforts are useful, digital identity could transform these processes, whittling down lengthy queues by authenticating identity in a matter of seconds.

In fact, South Africa is pursuing digital identity in some form, through the form of a Smart ID card that stores face and fingerprint biometrics. However, this pioneering initiative is being held back by a restrictive, lengthy onboarding process. Smart ID cards can only be issued from a selection of offices with a ‘live capture system’ as well as through certain banks that use the system in-house. This is not enough to implement a secure digital identity at scale.

Reframing the identity conversation

Many of South Africa’s challenges stem from systemic inequality. This inequality in access across gender, location and education lines has real implications for identity management. For this reason, the conversation needs to shift from identity being an administrative tool to identity being an essential human right.

Whether a person is applying for legal employment, registering at an address, setting up a phone contract, or opening a bank account, a proven identity that can be authenticated is an essential part of the process. Widespread, effective digital identification benefits citizens and generates significant economic value for governments and financial institutions as well.

As a result, a growing number of governments are teaming up with organizations worldwide to develop digital identity programmes that are not only convenient but open up essential pathways for previously disadvantaged or marginalized individuals to help them access financial and welfare services.

How open are citizens to digital identity?

The Digital Transformation Strategy for Africa (2020-2030) highlights both the potential social and economic implications of digital IDs for Africans, noting that digital IDs not only support social development, but also enable meaningful participation in productive processes to generate economic growth, spur innovation, and support entrepreneurship. Besides being viewed as an enabler for realising all these policy objectives, digital IDs are seen as critical for the successful implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

Kenya digital identity card

Digital identity programmes can bridge the identity gap by being accessible through even basic smartphones, thus eliminating barriers such as cost and complex application processes that often require travel. A case in point is the European Union Digital Identity Wallet (EUDIW) a decentralised, interoperable digital tool that aims to provide all 447 million EU citizens with the ability to easily store and exchange identity documents and credentials securely while having full control over their data.

Using identity verification will see important public and private services, such as online government services, online banking, remote prescriptions, and SIM registration become significantly more accessible.

See also: Maisha Cards: Kenyan government set to roll out digital national identity cards

The importance of inclusive and safe digital identity

For South Africans to truly embrace and reap the rewards of digital identity, accessibility and security are two critical factors that government and other essential service providers must consider.

Adopting accessible verification models maximises the inclusivity of digital identity programmes. Traditional remote verification methods, such as video calls or passwords, lack user convenience and may exclude individuals with language barriers or disabilities. By contrast, biometric face verification uses a front-facing camera and does not rely on the end user’s technical abilities.

Security is also key as these initiatives must provide the maximum number of people with digital identities and financial access, while consistently mitigating the risks of cybersecurity threats. As with any technology that enables access to a broad range of secured data and financial services, there is a risk of digital identities being compromised for fraud, money laundering, or other illicit activities.

With generative AI contributing towards the sophistication of tools such as deepfakes, this risk is higher and the crime is easier to perpetrate than ever before. Liveness confirms that the person verifying their identity exists and is a live human being with the right to access the online account or service. It also assures that it is a real person and not a photo or mask or other presentation attack. It does not protect against scalable digital attacks like deepfake where synthetic images can be injected into device sensors.

Successful digital identity schemes, such as Estonia’s, yield economic benefits for the government and businesses and demonstrate the positive impact of such initiatives. Similarly, as the European Union’s (EU) initiative progresses, other nations can learn valuable lessons from them and adopt strategies that foster a society characterised by enhanced inclusivity and economic prosperity.

Ground-breaking identity verification in practice

iProov and iDENTIFii have seen the positive impact of Dynamic Liveness Technology in delivering fast, secure and effortless passive face biometric authentication. In addition to being a strong digital alternative to historic forms of identity verification, its anti-spoofing technology is also effective in detecting and protecting against future cyber threats. The U.S. Federal Government lists iProov as a Synthetic Identity Fraud Mitigation Provider and government clients include the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the UK Home Office, the Australian Tax Office, and GovTech Singapore.

The future of digital identity in South Africa by Gur Geva

The UK Home Office EU Settlement Scheme, a digital application process for EEA nationals living in the UK post-Brexit, is a powerful example of the impact of digital identity on public services. The scheme was developed by iProov, WorldReach Software, and InnoValor, and provides a simple, secure, and usable solution for applicants to apply for settlement status online. The app includes key features such as remote identity documentation checking using NFC or OCR, and biometric identity authentication via iProov’s Dynamic Liveness technology. The app has been extremely successful, with over 4.2 million applications completed, high levels of identity assurance, and an average satisfaction rating of 4.1 stars.

Looking forward

While the local government is still rolling out digital identity, the financial services industry in South Africa has been an early adopter. Not only has it proven the ability of digital identity to be more efficient and safer, but it has also shown that it is possible to use biometrics at scale.

Several of iiDENTIFii’s South African banking clients have been able to address downtime issues by using subsequent authentication. iiDENTIFii has prioritised this based on the understanding that an authentication process that keeps customers secure and engaged, is a successful one.

For this reason, its platform is able to process individuals by storing their reference templates and enabling subsequent authentication. If financial institutions and the government collaborate in digitising government systems, it could make true financial inclusion and accessible digital identity at scale a reality, in a way that reaches all South Africans.

Gur Geva is the Co-founder and CEO of South African identity management company, iiDENTIFii

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