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Africa: South Africa’s Plan to Record All Babies’ Biometrics Raises Privacy Fears

New IdentityTheft Scam

Plans to photograph and fingerprint every baby born in South Africa for a digital register could lead to data leaks and identity theft without robust safeguards, rights experts said on Thursday.

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 new registration system will prevent corrupt officials selling birth certificates to foreigners to illegally secure South African citizenship and protect children who otherwise risk going undocumented.

About one in 10 of some 1 million babies born in South Africa each year are not registered at birth, government data shows. 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 recognises them as citizens – will receive a digital number, although this does not translate to 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 digital identification – or 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,” Atick told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in emailed comments.

The Department of Home Affairs did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

South Africa passed the Protection of Personal Information Act in 2013, which aims to protect private data held by government, businesses and individuals from security breaches, theft and misuse, but key elements have yet to be enacted.

The country has been hit repeatedly by cyber criminals.

The city of Johannesburg had to shut down its website and online services in 2019 after its network was breached by hackers who threatened to upload all its private data online unless the government paid a ransom.

ABUSE

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.