Seventy-Three Million People Lose Mobile Phone Access in Nigeria For Not Having Digital ID

As the World Bank drives the implementation of digital ID programs across the Global South, including in Nigeria, its fellow Bretton Woods institution, the IMF, is doing much the same for central bank digital currencies (CBDCs).

“I would never want to get a digital ID.”

Those are the words of Ann Cavoukian, who knows a thing or two about digital identity  platforms, having served three terms as privacy commissioner for the Canadian province of Ontario (1997-2014), which is now developing its own digital ID system. She is renowned for pioneering the concept of privacy by design, which takes privacy into account throughout system engineering processes.

Now serving as executive director of the Global Privacy and Security by Design Centre, Cavoukian has expressed fears that digital ID systems will fall victim to identity theft and online accessing of data by unauthorized third parties. These are just two of the many concerns the digital ID programs rapidly being rolled out around the world throw up. Another is their potential to exclude people — particularly those already on the margins — from being able to participate in the economy or society.

Cutting Off 73 Million People

Nigeria’s government, determined to speed up public adoption of its mandatory digital ID, just gave one example of how this could happen. To encourage (to put it kindly) citizens to get with its ID program, it has barred anyone who isn’t registered in the national digital identity database from being able to make outgoing calls from their mobile phones. The move has affected some 73 million people, according to a Thomson Reuters article.

That is roughly a third of the West African nation’s just over 200 million inhabitants. Considering just under half of Nigeria’s population is under the age of 15, many of whom presumably do not own a smartphone, it means the vast majority of Nigerians are currently unable to use their mobile phones to make outgoing calls. Given how important mobile networks are in Sub-Saharan Africa, serving as the only form of internet access for many, the impact will have been huge. Here’s more from the Reuters piece:

Nigeria is among dozens of African countries including Ghana, Egypt and Kenya with SIM registration laws that authorities say are necessary for security purposes, but digital rights experts say increase surveillance and hurts privacy.

Nigeria has been rolling out 11-digit electronic national identity cards for almost a decade, which record an individual’s personal and biometric data, including fingerprints and photo.

The National Identity Number (NIN) is required to open a bank account, apply for a driver’s license, vote, get health insurance, and file tax returns.

Multiple Functions

The government says digital identity is needed to bolster security and identify criminals as it battles insurgents and armed bandits who have kidnapped hundreds of people for ransom. A similar argument was used by the government of Mexico to justify the proposed creation of a National Register of Mobile Telephone Users, a centralized database containing the line number, date and time of activation for each user, their full name and biometric data, among other information.

Besides serving as a national ID card, Nigeria’s digital ID number (NIN) has multiple other functions, says French military contractor Thales Group, one of the companies contracted to help implement Nigeria’s digital ID system. It will also serve as a travel document, an electronic ID, a biometric e-ID (containing the holder’s 10 fingerprints and photograph captured during the registration process) and a payment card. In the second phase of its implementation, complementary applications such as an e-drivers’ license and other e-services, including eVoting, eHealth, and eTr​ansport​, will be included.​

The National Identification Number (NIN) is mandatory for all Nigerian citizens and legal residents in the territory of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. But most people are still not registered. According to the local Guardian newspaper, as of March 31, 2022, 126.7 million Nigerians did not have a national identity number. In 2020, Nigeria’s telecommunications regulator declared that every active mobile phone number must be linked to the user’s NIN. It then repeatedly extended the deadline until April 4 this year, as Reuters reports:

The government said outgoing calls were being barred from April 4 from any mobile phone numbers that had not complied.

Millions of Nigerians have not registered their SIM cards, for reasons ranging from concerns over privacy to problems reaching registration centres or not having a NIN.

“There have been no reasonable explanations as to why we have to link NIN to our SIM,” said Nneka Orji, a journalist in southeast Nigeria who has not registered her SIM.

“For that reason, I am not ready to do that,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. She now relies on WhatsApp to make calls, even though not all of her contacts use the messaging service.

Data Privacy and Security Fears

In Nigeria, some citizens in rural areas may lack the means to travel to registration centers, of which there are nearly 800, according to official data. Others fear their personal data, including their most personal data of all — their biometric information — will be compromised or shared with third parties…

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