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

Seventy-Three Million People Lose Partial Access to Mobile Phone Networks in Nigeria For Not Having Digital ID 1

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:

“I don’t think the NIMC and telcos have the right infrastructure to protect my data,” said Favour Akachukwu, a call centre agent in Ibadan in southwest Nigeria, who has not registered his phone.

Akachukwu said he has received numerous calls from fraudsters who had his 11-digit bank verification number – which is required to hold a bank account in Nigeria – and were trying to get further details from him to access his account.

Privacy activists have cautioned that African governments are increasingly using new technologies and laws to expand surveillance of citizens and dissidents. Nigeria’s order to bar unregistered phones is “an infringement on the rights to freedom of expression and privacy” guaranteed by its constitution, human rights lawyer Festus Ogun, managing partner at Festus Ogun Legal in Lagos, told Reuters.

In theory, Nigeria has a data protection act in place — the so-called Nigerian Data Protection Regulation (NDPR), which came into being in 2020 after a long process of public consultation. But as the online newspaper Premium Times reported in November, 2021, the government is now seeking to rewrite the rules with the help of an external (as in overseas) consultancy firm. It will pay for the consultancy’s services with a loan applied for from the World Bank, the French Development Agency (AFD) and the European Investment Bank (EIB).

Experts in Nigeria have expressed umbrage that the federal government is planning to engage consultants for a process that “had already been concluded” by relevant stakeholders in 2020. One expert, who did not want his name mentioned due to the sensitivity of the position he holds in the digital ecosystem, said:

“What will a World Bank consultant do differently that competent government agencies and industry professionals have not done in the 2020 Bill they worked on tirelessly last year? Also, what is the rationale behind seeking a World bank grant? Is it to feather the nest of some government officials? Are we saying it is right for World Bank to set the stage and determine the bill that will affect our data sovereignty as a nation?”

World Bank Driving Adoption of Digital ID Programs, Including Among Dictatorships

Nigeria’s digital ID program is already largely funded by the World Bank, which is driving digital ID adoption around the world, particularly in the Global South, through its Identity for Development (ID4D) program. The ostensible goal behind the program is to provide legal identity to the 1.1 billion people, mainly in Asia and Africa, who do not currently have one. This is in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 16.9, which aims to ‘’provide legal identity for all, including free birth registrations’’ by 2030.

To date, the World Bank has “assisted” 41 countries in this endeavor, by conducting country assessments, providing technical advice, and funneling the funding necessary for their development and implementation. The list includes a fair number of unsavory regimes that would like nothing more than to expand their surveillance and enforcement capabilities and powers — something digital ID programs, deployed alongside other forms of AI-enabled surveillance technologies, can certainly offer.

The ID4D program was launched in 2014 with “catalytic contributions” from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (quelle surprise!) as well as the UK Government, the French Government, the Australian Government and the Omidyar Network. According to the World Bank Group’s website, it is a “cross-sectoral platform that creates and leverages partnerships with United Nations agencies, other donors, non-government organizations, academia, and the private sector” with the goal of “help[ing] countries realise the transformational potential of digital identification systems.”

The Nigerian government received additional financing for its digital ID program from the French Development Agency and the European Commission, which appears to be externalizing its migration/deportation policy by pushing countries that provide large inflows of migration into the EU (mainly Africa, the Middle East and non-EU member states in the Balkans) to set up biometric databases and digital identity programs.

World Bank + IMF = Digital Identity + CBDC

The digital ID programs are wrapped up in cozy buzz words such as digital development, social protection, gender issues and financial inclusion. But digital ID systems can also be weaponized by authorities to exclude millions of people from access to the most basic services and amenities, as the NGO Access Now warned in October 2021:

As it stands, governments are making digital identity systems central to our lives, including making them requirements for access to vital government services and assistance, without the necessary input from civil society. At a pre-summit panel discussion, Digital ID for Inclusive Development? Emerging evidence on social exclusion and its broader implications, the panelists presented cases demonstrating patterns of exclusion in IndiaUganda, and Kenya. They showed how digital identity programs are creating barriers to access to legal identity and public services for many people, while exacerbating inequalities and perpetuating systemic discrimination.

Interestingly, as the World Bank pushes the development and implementation of digital ID programs in the Global South, its fellow Bretton Woods institution, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), is doing exactly the same for central bank digital currencies (CBDCs), both in the Global South and North. As the FT recently reported, central bank digital currencies will almost certainly have to go hand in hand with digital IDs:

What CBDC research and experimentation appears to be showing is that it will be nigh on impossible to issue such currencies outside of a comprehensive national digital ID management system. Meaning: CBDCs will likely be tied to personal accounts that include personal data, credit history and other forms of relevant information.

It just so happens that Nigeria is one of the first jurisdictions on planet Earth to have  launched a central bank digital currency (CBDC): the so-called e-Naira, which as the IMF’s African department said in November 2021, is drawing substantial interest from the outside world, including from central banks. While central banks insist that CBDCs are intended as  complementary to rather than a replacement of physical cash, Thales Group’s own communications suggest otherwise: one of the “ambitious aims” of Nigeria’s national identity program, says the military contractor, is the creation of a cashless society.

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