Digital rights groups are warning that plans to photograph and fingerprint every baby born in South Africa for a digital register could lead to data leaks and identity theft in the absence of robust safeguards.
The Department of Home Affairs’ new draft policy aims to capture detailed biometrics – unique physical traits – of every child born in South Africa and link this data to parents’ identity numbers, which are printed on all ID documents.
The government hopes the proposed new registration system will prevent corrupt officials from selling birth certificates to foreigners to illegally secure South African citizenship and protect children who otherwise risk going undocumented.
Murray Hunter, a South African digital rights activist who authored Boris the BabyBot, a children’s book about surveillance, was skeptical that biometrics can solve identity management issues.
“Can it truly be that the only solution (to identity theft) is not to root out corrupt officials, but to create massive databases of every child’s face, fingerprints, and other biometric info?”
Some 1 million babies born in SA annually not registered
About one in 10 of some 1 million babies born in South Africa each year are not registered at birth, government data shows, Reuters Foundation News reported.
Without birth certificates, they risk exclusion from school and health care and denial of citizenship.
Under the proposed policy, all children – including those whose parents are migrants or stateless (meaning no country recognizes them as citizens) – will be issued a digital number, although, it must be highlighted, this would not translate into automatic citizenship.
“Governments need to have digital registers of their population to deliver services,” said Joseph Atick, executive chairman of ID4Africa, a charity that promotes online identity records across Africa.
“(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.”
South Africa’s Protection of Personal Information Act, passed in 2013, aims to protect private data held by the government, businesses, and individuals from security breaches, theft, and misuse, but, as Reuters Foundation News reports, key elements of the legislation have yet to be enacted.
About 1 billion people globally lack identity proofs, which are often vital to access welfare payments, open businesses, obtain mobile phone lines, and vote, according to the World Bank, which is backing efforts to roll out digital IDs worldwide.
Advanced biometric systems are already in use in countries such as India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, linking fingerprints and iris scans to a unique identity number.
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Currently, South Africans apply for a digital ID number at the age of 16, and their photos and fingerprints are taken.
The proposed policy is open for public comment until Feb. 28, after which it will be formulated into a bill.
Official Identity Management Policy
In November 2020, the government published the Official Identity Management Policy for public comment.
Minister in the Presidency, Jackson Mthembu, said at the time that the policy proposes a number of changes to existing legislation including the Identification Act and Alteration of Sex Description and Sex Status Act, to align them with the Constitution and the Protection of Personal Information Act.
“It will integrate the current systems into a biometric-enabled National Identity System. The new proposed population register will form the basis of an official e-identity which will serve as the backbone of state and private digital platforms.”
In June 2019, International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) Minister, Naledi Pandor, said government was working on a new ID system that will provide a single source of information about all clients, using “both biographic and biometric technologies.”