Africa: Are biometric ID cards a legal means of privacy invasion?
Many Mauritians are rising in protest against the ID cards, claiming that they threaten privacy and even democracy itself. (Image: Dreamstime)
Big brother is watching you! George Orwell may not have written ‘1984’ with smart cards in mind, but his classic novel’s concept of a government conspiracy theory against its own citizens appears frighteningly true in this day and age of ‘dataveillance’, where electronic databases enable lifelong surveillance by the government.
Zooming in on Africa, both Mauritius and South Africa are at the moment introducing smart ID cards, requiring citizens to give biometric information to the government in the form of their fingerprints, to establish their legal identities.
Both governments give similar reasons for these schemes: the cards are secure and personal information, including the fingerprints, are stored in a contactless microchip that is difficult to tamper with and these security measures are expected to stamp out identity fraud and theft.
Even though these initiatives may sound laudable, many Mauritians are rising in protest against the ID cards, claiming that they threaten privacy and even democracy itself.
Added to that, the Mauritian authorities plans are much more stringent than South Africa’s, as the former require people to carry their identity cards at all times.
Till now, three court cases have been brought against the system and that too on constitutional grounds.
‘Lalit de Klas’, a Mauritian organization involved in the struggle, argued that the new system will only allow the government to build a profile of individuals that could be used against them in the future if they are considered guilty of menacing the government interests.
Apart from Mauritian citizens, citizens hailing from other countries such as the United Kingdom, United States and Germany, have also opposed the introduction of the new ID cards in their homeland.
They have spoken out against what has been called ‘dataveillance’, where electronic databases enable lifelong surveillance under which the government is allowed to build up a clear picture of people’s ongoing movements, habits and preferences.
Hence, the gathering of this information can allow governments to profile those who can cause political threats to ruling interests.
In fact, centralized biometric databases are the perfect police state tool for social control.
Biometrics involves the use of unique physical characteristics to verify a person’s identity, stored in a digital format, recorded in national population registers, and analyzed by computers.
They are being used increasingly for an array of public administration purposes, and fingerprints are the most commonly used, but facial or voice recognition may be used too.
Biometrics-based identity verification is susceptible to error, as it offers only a probability of a match based on the likeness of stored physical characteristics; it cannot verify identities with certainty.
It also suffers from controversial margins of error, including false matches, ‘false positives’, or biometrics not being recognized, ‘false negatives’.
Finally, fingerprints have the highest rate of error, where in extreme situations a person could become a criminal suspect based on false information.
Thinking of ‘Minority Report’, anyone? The Tom Cruise starrer’s concept of predictive crime may seem far-fetched, but using past behavior to analyze future actions may not be as distant a technology as it may appear.