Identity in Africa, the mobile upwards

October 2012 Access Control & Identity Management

In Africa, many more people are likely to reap the benefits of mobile telephony, in many more ways, than any other continent before. It may sound like a contradiction, but these are the facts. Today, a little over 500 million people on the continent, possibly constituting 60% of its population, have a personal mobile connection, in many cases their only institutionalised identification.

Besides this, it is often the only means of communication – for business, family and socialising – the PC and the Internet being still sparsely available. For millions still, it is the only way of banking, and where education is an urgent and important need, the only source of sharing knowledge. All this makes the need to securely identify the subscriber, of paramount importance.

The telecom operators that have made its widespread use possible come from different backgrounds, and with contrasting marketing ideologies. Vodacom has followed the predominantly western norm, and has connected the African elite with a world-class service. Airtel has arrived from the East, with products and services that have mass appeal.

By repeatedly breaking price barriers, they have hoped to increase talk times. But in Africa, if the subscribers saved talk-time money, they would rather buy a bicycle, or even daily necessities. Such are the complex socio-economic pressures in much of the continent. Nevertheless, if they were to get on with the arduous climb to economic prosperity, just as Asia did in the previous decades, it would be heavily dependent on the mobile telephone.

Sanjay Dharwadker
Sanjay Dharwadker

More than a phone

But herein lies a crucial catch and this was more than highlighted recently in an East African country, where its national ID card program floundered and because of the absence of any other means of formal identification, the much needed telecom expansion has come almost to a halt. At one time, technologies associated with identity management, such as biometrics and smartcards, were often jocularly referred to as 'solutions looking for a problem', but somehow in the African context we may have finally come full circle.

In many countries, the mobile network operators (MNOs) are already working with banks. Both, besides being well-established corporate entities, are continuously monitored by regulators from the government or quasi-government bodies.

To establish the subscriber identity, two missing pieces need to be put in place. First is the establishment of unique identity, at the time of enrolment. Deployment of a one-to-many biometric search engine is ideal, and this can easily be institutionalised (on behalf of the state, so to say) by the network operator and/or the bank. This could well be their cost of 'owning the customer'.

The second is to enhance the current standard two-factor authentication (SIM and PIN/PUK), that ensures the uniqueness of the instrument, but not of the subscriber. With recent developments in voice recognition this could change. However, this technology is new, and both its reliability and cost would require some time to settle in.

A paradigm shift

However, if it does in the coming years, it could be a welcome breakthrough and could even cause a paradigm shift in systems like the pension payouts that have been pioneered in South Africa and are being implemented elsewhere in Africa. Reliable voice recognition would provide the crucial missing piece in the entire jigsaw and eliminate altogether the need for the old and the infirm to (even if it once a month) to queue up and be recognised for a physical payout. It could all be done on a mobile phone then.

For a moment then, let us just imagine, even if it sounds like fantasy – that instead of electoral rolls, and citizen registration systems, and health insurance, and pensions, and welfare – if it is only the mobile phone with each citizen!

It would indeed be a win-win for all – the citizen will have a trusted identity (and a voice) – s/he can transact, learn and socialise, the cost can be more than recovered by the service providers, and millions more can become part of the global mainstream of commerce and communication, while the state can have a means of listening in to their citizens, all at the same time.

A case seems certainly to be there, but maybe we have to all think it through. Any takers?

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