March 1

Yiannis Theodorou

In a World of 5 Billion Mobile Phone Users, ID Policy Needs to Catch Up – Fast

With a global subscriber base that surpassed 5 billion in 2017, the mobile ecosystem has created a digital platform that is increasingly connecting everyone and everything. Given this scale, the mobile industry has a unique opportunity to bring the benefits of digital technology to many of the poorest and hardest-to-reach communities around the world, and in doing so, to help deliver one of the key targets of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 16: “…by 2030, provide legal identity for all, including birth registration.”

As more countries – particularly in the developing world – continue to implement their digital transformation strategies, proving one’s identity digitally will become increasingly fundamental to participation and inclusion. A key step to this inclusion is people’s ability to access mobile services in their own name, but this may not be possible for millions of vulnerable groups that lack the recognised identification credentials and reside in countries where prepaid SIM registration is mandated.

Building on the GSMA’s previous reports, our new policy research published in February offers a global perspective of trends and linkages between access to mobile and access to official identification. It also examines mandatory SIM registration policies across the 147 countries worldwide where proof-of-identity is required to register a prepaid mobile SIM card in one’s own name.

Individuals’ ability to access a recognised form of identification and register for a mobile subscription in their own names could unlock access to a plethora of mobile-enabled services, such as mobile money accounts, pay-as-you-go utility services, educational, health and other digital services.

Yet most markets with low mobile penetration are also characterised by low levels of registered populations, suggesting a direct relationship between people’s ability to access a government-recognised proof of identity and the level of mobile penetration in that market.

This finding supports the conclusion that millions of individuals who lack a proof-of-identity face a higher risk of social, digital and financial exclusion where they cannot meet mandatory identification requirements for registering a SIM card in their own names.

Our research also found that a small, but slowly increasing, number of countries have adopted biometric technologies for registering SIM cards – while also building capabilities for enabling (and requiring) mobile network operators (MNOs) to validate their customers’ identification credentials against a central database in real time.

Half of the countries mandating prepaid SIM registration have no or inadequate privacy or data protection frameworks in place. As a result, consumers often have limited, if any, rights to seek legal redress against possible violations of their privacy or personal data. This may lead to consumer calls for increased transparency on how personal data are used – and could also adversely impact their willingness to register a SIM in their own names, or adopt identity-linked mobile services. Additionally, transparency to consumers about how their data are used is important for maintaining high levels of trust in digital and mobile ecosystems.

In order to drive improved social, political and economic inclusion, as well as engender trust in the digital ecosystem, the need for enabling policy and regulatory environments should not be underestimated – particularly where SIM registration is mandated. Elements of such an environment include:

  • Empowering every individual to access an official or recognised form of identification, while acknowledging the central role mobile operators (due to their existing reach and data processes) can play in building or supporting the digital identity ecosystem;
  • Ensuring consistency between the different legal and regulatory instruments that affect the management and the roll-out of mobile identity services;
  • Establishing or maintaining privacy and data protection frameworks that foster trust in mobile and digital identity ecosystems;
  • Engaging with mobile operators, key stakeholders and the wider identification ecosystem to help drive innovative and interoperable solutions and encourage adoption (e.g. through eGovernment and digital social protection services).

To explore this research in greater depth, please check out the GSMA report: “Access to Mobile Services and Proof-of-Identity: Global policy trends, dependencies and risks.”


Yiannis Theodorou is the Director of Policy and Regulatory Affairs at the GSMA.


This post originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse. 

Photo credit: Stefano Ravalli, via Flickr.

Homepage photo credit: Jan Arendtsz, via Flickr.




Finance, Technology
data, digital identity, mobile finance, public policy