In just over a month, Nigerians who do not submit their biometric data and mobile phone information to enroll in a national identification system will lose access to telecommunication services and may no longer be eligible to receive passports or driving permits. Fewer than half the country’s citizens are currently registered in the system, and digital rights activists are pushing back against what they see as a program with potential for abuse. This week, the Data Values Project spoke with Paradigm Initiative’s Executive Director ‘Gbenga Sesan about unacceptable trade-offs and the urgent need to upend power imbalances in data and digital technology.

Nigeria’s government last week extended the deadline for all citizens to register in the national identification number (NIN) system that links personal information including fingerprints, photos and digital signatures to mobile phone information via SIM cards. In Nigeria (as in many other countries), an NIN is required to vote, open a bank account, file taxes, and more. Nigerian officials have said anyone who doesn’t submit their information by the end of the year will lose access to phone services.

But activists like ‘Gbenga, who is also a member of the Global Partnership’s Technical Advisory Group, are willing to give up services to avoid handing over their data.

“I personally believe that a country that does not have data protection laws should not be collecting six or seven different kinds of biometric data from citizens,” ‘Gbenga said in a Fireside Chat released this week.

(You can see a recording of their #DataValues Fireside Chat here.)

A study commissioned by Luminate this year found that “Nigeria has no comprehensive legislation that addresses data and digital rights.”

At the same time, national digital ID systems are key to battling statelessness, social exclusion, and a host of other problems. Around a billion people today lack legal ID credentials while up to 3.4 billion people are unable to use their legal identity in the digital world, according to estimates from the World Bank and the McKinsey Global Institute. But for individuals in countries without (or with weak) legal protections for digital rights, this is an impossible choice. In agreeing to hand over personal data in return for services, people risk submitting data that can be misused or used against them. 

So how can we balance these competing interests? Governments, donors, and aid organizations seeking to institute digital ID systems must take a country’s digital rights landscape into account and consider complementary interventions to support trustworthy digital ID and biometric data management systems. Strong legal and regulatory frameworks are certainly a key part of this. But mechanisms for effective enforcement that ensure transparency and accountability are complex. They include formal systems (such as parliaments and courts), informal mechanisms (such as media), and advocacy and civil society organizations. These are just the first steps to addressing power imbalances that can lead to abuse or misuse of people’s data.

Changing this situation also requires confronting fundamental power imbalances by putting people and participatory decision-making at the center of program design. This is why ‘Gbenga argues that everyone must be a digital rights activist.

Change will “only come from seeing that everyone, literally everyone you meet, is an advocate for rights—even people you do not expect,” he said. “Businesses, governments, individuals, [and] civil society [must] make sure that rights are at the center of our designs.”

The Data Values Project is investigating ways to create genuine inclusion and participation through data. In addition to creating space for healthy oversight and accountability, this calls for a shift from planning activities on behalf of people to placing people and their rights at the center of design.