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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

The Steady Rise of Biometric Technology in Africa

Article by: Jordan Mc Lean

The Path Towards a Digital Revolution

Africa’s population is set to double by 2050 to 2.5 billion people. African governments face the very basic challenge of identifying all their citizens in order to help them determine how and to whom best to provide education, health care and jobs. Biometric technology has already been viewed as attractive by many states –  a digital revolution that has been quietly unfolding across the continent over the last few decades. While almost one third of Africans have internet access and electricity connection was extended to millions of citizens throughout the last decade, the COVID-19 pandemic reversed the development of electricity connections for the first time since 2013. But this doesn’t seem to be stopping the digital revolution, as the number of mobile phone users is expected to increase to 75 per cent of the continent’s population by 2025. Banks, hospitals, public transportation, schools, police stations, voting stations and social security systems have been relying on fingerprint databases and digital IDs to authenticate people’s identities and help states prevent fraud and identity theft.

A History of Biometrics in Africa

Biometric technology is used to identify people based on one aspect of their physical body. Fingerprint recognition is arguably the most popular method of biometric identification while iris recognition scanning and facial recognition technology are becoming more affordable as technology spreads and develops. Biometric technology is being used to monitor borders, to grant access to government services like welfare payments, and to protect businesses and individuals from fraud. Facial recognition technology featuring in security monitoring and fingerprint scans are common practice for access control to buildings or secure locations. All of these uses, security, identification, anti-fraud and more, are integral to the development and prosperity of Africa. While African countries are experiencing economic growth, it is difficult for state bureaucracies to register people’s identities in order to provide sufficient basic services. An innovative and cost-effective method was thus needed to account for every citizen from large cities to rural villages and biometric technology filled this gap. Besides the need to know who and how many people African countries govern, as Aratek Biometrics representative, Deniz Yurdasen says, digitising government records was the next developmental process, part of Africa’s digital revolution.

Apartheid to Democracy: South Africa’s Biometric Obsession

As Keith Breckenridge, professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research argues, South Africans are much more accustomed to biometric identification than any other African country. It has been a feature of governing authority from colonialism to democracy. The first large-scale usage of fingerprint-based biometrics was in the delivery of state pension benefits in apartheid South Africa. This has grown to include all beneficiaries of cash transfers in the country. One in every three South Africans receive state financial support, linked to biometric information, while other citizens register their information in identity cards and with banks which are used to monitor people’s credit ratings. Described as an ‘obsession,’ South Africa’s biometric use and development of biometric technology serves as a case study for other countries on the continent.

Digitisation and Conflict

Despite the fact that virtually all citizens are captured in South Africa’s biometric databases in one way or another, the country has faced a scandal: The company responsible for paying cash transfers to millions of the most poor elderly, disabled and child caregivers saw its contract to provide these payments invalidated. Net1 UEPS is a South African financial services provider which had paid social grants linked to cards loaded with welfare beneficiaries biometric information. The Constitutional Court found that the contract was not awarded to Net1 legally as even social welfare became a target for corrupt government officials. Outrage also followed the firm’s exploitation over beneficiaries which included selling financial products which would be paid out from their cash transfers — already too low to secure their basic needs.

The Future of Biometrics on the Continent

Compared with its neighbour South Africa, Zimbabwe’s interest in biometric technology is more surprising. Zimbabwe faces heavy economic sanctions stemming from human rights violations. The country also faces economic challenges and its ability to afford highly complex biometric technology might be questioned. Nonetheless, in 2018 a Guangzhou start-up company named CloudWalk Technology entered into an agreement with the Zimbabwean government to provide a mass facial recognition program which would create the first facial database on the continent.  The move towards biometric technology and identification has not been without its hurdles. While these technologies are being rolled out rapidly, proper laws to regulate the development and use of biometric data are lacking. Kenya’s High Court was forced to halt the Huduma Namba biometric ID in 2020 over the lack of a regulatory framework to protect citizens’ privacy. In Zimbabwe’s case, the 2002 Access to Information and Protection Privacy Act has no specific clauses related to biometric data. There are also concerns over the ownership of the biometric data collected. Most providers of Africa’s biometric technology are European, Chinese or Indian-owned firms whose agreements with governments are not always transparent, leaving citizens unsure of how their data is used. But, like in South Africa, despite some citizens having genuine concerns over biometric technology, these tools are necessary for them to access the lifelines of cash transfers, public health and education. 

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