Privacy advocates are already pushing back against South Africa’s proposed biometric registration plan. Under the new policy, the government would collect fingerprint and facial biometrics for every child born in the country, and would link that information to the national identity numbers of the parents.
According to South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs, the new policy (which is currently in draft form) is needed to crack down on identity theft within the country. As it stands, approximately 10 percent of the 1 million children born in the country every year are not registered at birth, and therefore do not have access to the benefits of citizenship, which include healthcare and education. It has also created a thriving black market in which South African birth certificates are sold to foreigners looking to obtain citizenship for their children.
The DHA argues that the sale of birth certificates is only possible because the country does not record biometrics, and does not have any way to prove which certificate belongs to which child. The new registration policy would ostensibly fix that problem, since it would link an identity document to biometric characteristics.
However, critics are worried that the South African government does not have the technological expertise needed to manage such a system. The country has dealt with data breaches in the past, and has not yet enacted several key components of a Protection of Personal Information Act that was passed in 2013. With that in mind, privacy advocates are concerned that the government may not be able to protect the biometric data it collects, and that corrupt officials could leak sensitive personal information to cybercriminals.
“Governments need to have digital registers of their population to deliver services,” said ID4Africa Executive Chairman Joseph Atick. “(But) the threat to privacy is real. That is why we promote the development of data protection and privacy laws and frameworks before embracing digital identity.”
Critics compared the DHA’s proposal to India’s Aadhaar program, noting that India has similarly struggled to protect the personal information of people registered with the system. The policy draft will be open to public comment until February 28.
January 11, 2021 – by Eric Weiss