The Biometrics Bonanza: Measuring and Identifying Humans

Many African  governments have unwisely bought biometric proprietary systems of private companies, meaning that they are forced to go back to the seller for maintenance, upgrades and new components. That can be expensive. When Nigeria wanted to use its own card-printing machines, the firm that had sold it software tried to insist that Nigeria buy its machines as well… They eventually got help from Pakistan, which had software that worked on any machine.

But there are signs of change coming from within the industry itself, spurred by developments in an entirely different part of the world: India. Like Africa, it is vast, poor and home to more than a billion people. Yet as a single country India has tremendous negotiating power. When India developed its “Aadhaar” identity programme it invited leading firms to bid—but with the caveat that they provide open-source software, or code that can be examined and changed by others. This allowed engineers to knit together different bits of a system such as databases, enrollment software, fingerprint scanners and so on. The suppliers agreed because they did not want to miss out on the biggest identity bonanza the world had ever seen. Moreover, India’s spending led to a big increase in production, which caused prices to fall across the industry.

Even as governments think about the technical problems of recording identity, they also need to grapple with the far more consequential ones around rights, governance and privacy. The starkest warning of the misuse of identity was in the Rwandan genocide, where ID papers listed ethnicity, making it easy to target Tutsis. Since data on religion and ethnicity are not needed to provide services, governments should not be hoovering it up.

States should also be wary of denying people their rights by creating a class of citizens without papers. In Kenya, for example, the government wants everyone to register for ID  cards, but it discriminates against members of the Nubian minority by forcing them to appear before a security panel to prove their nationality. Modern identity systems promise to bring many benefits to Africa. But as they proliferate, so too will the temptation for politicians to misuse them

Excerpts from Identity Documentation in Africa: Papers Please, Economist, Dec. 7, 2019

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