The impact of Blockchain on digital identity in Africa

In the twenty-first century in Africa, millions of Africans still remain digitally faceless. A report indicates that almost 500 million of the slightly over-a-billion Africans were without an identity in 2019, even as the world approaches a full-fledged digital economy. Traditional identity systems, which predominantly operate centralized models, have proven to be exclusionary and offer no dependable hope of providing every individual in the world an identity on the digital map by 2030, as the UN and World Bank envisions. 

There is no inch of doubt that digital identity plays an integral role in the attainment of a properly functioning society and economy. If the world, and Africa, particularly, would achieve a remarkable leap from the status quo, economically and in other ramifications, its nations have an obligation to ensure that their citizens possess a digital identity that grants them increased inclusion and access to improved social, political and financial benefits.

Interestingly, blockchain provides a robust system that can redefine what a digital identity means, and also facilitate inclusive growth for the many “invisible” Africans that exist today. The honey pot of leveraging blockchain for digital identity is its ability to create a Self Sovereign Identity that is cryptographically verifiable. A Self Sovereign Identity places absolute control of an individual’s identity in their own hands. “Blockchain technology allows the Self Sovereign model to work. In this model, identity and the claims of a user are directly and autonomously managed by the user. This system allows to manage a root-of-trust without a central authority or a single point of failure,” a PwC report states. Via a personal digital wallet, an individual can obtain full control of every form of identity linked to them, like their passport, birth certificate, etc, and also determine when and how their identity data is shared. This bequeaths full control of a person’s identity into the hands of the individual, in contrast to traditional identity systems where centralized authorities are required.

An individual, for example, can validate their identity through documents that contain proof of their personal information and identity, without having to share details about the documents. A private key is all that is required to send out information that simply validates the user’s claim of ownership, and, in turn, the user’s identity.

The concept of a Self Sovereign Identity, facilitated by blockchain, enhances interoperability of a user’s identity across different platforms. This makes it easier for users to verify their identity across any web platform, non-web platforms and other services. It also ensures that the personal data of the user is not shared without the user’s consent. This kind of identity system allows users to be identified through Decentralized Identifiers(DID).

The diagram below illustrates a Self Sovereign Identity model.

Image Credit: PwC 

A major issue associated with a traditional centralized identity system is its vulnerability to data breaches. Cases of cyber attacks on centralized authorities are skyrocketing, thereby, placing a huge risk on the safety of the data of individuals possessed by central authorities. With blockchain offering a decentralized identity system and destroying the need for a central system, the cases of data breaches can be curbed effectively.

 In a blockchain-based digital identity system, no data is possessed by a central authority. Every node in the blockchain network contains the data, thereby, making it impossible for occurrences of data breaches that exist in central identity systems to also exist in a blockchain-based digital identity system. This also increases transparency.

Blockchain also offers a solution to the challenge of identity fraud and the tampering of data, through the characteristic immutability of data stored on a blockchain. This creates a tamper-proof and extremely secure means of identification. It also eliminates the vulnerability associated with protecting sensitive digital ID information with a password, since a blockchain-based digital identity system cryptographically secures a user’s ID. 

Leveraging the power of blockchain does not only hold the promise of granting visibility to the almost 500 million “invisible” Africans that exist today, it also possesses the capability of transforming the concept of digital identity for the other Africans that already possess some form of digital identity. With blockchain, the true experience of owning a digital identity can be unlocked, and the frontiers of digital possibilities that accompany the possession of a digital ID, can be further expanded.

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