South Africa Plans to Record All Babies’ Biometrics - Identity Review - Identity Review | Global Tech Think Tank

South Africa is planning to photograph and fingerprint every baby born. The new draft policy, authored by the Department of Home Affairs, aims to capture the detailed biometrics of every child born in South Africa. They hope to link this data to parents’ identity numbers and register it in a system that will prevent corrupt officials from enabling others to illegally secure South African citizenship.

The system is also supposed to protect children who otherwise risk going undocumented. Given that 10 in 1 million babies born in South Africa every year are not registered at birth, this would be a big change for the country. Without birth certificates, these children typically risk denial of citizenship and exclusion from school and health care.

“Governments need to have digital registers of their population to deliver services,” said Joseph Atick, Executive Chairman of ID4Africa, a charity that promotes digital identificationor online identity recordsacross Africa.

Similarities Across Countries

Advanced biometric systems are already in use in other countries such as India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Specifically, in Pakistan, the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) has partnered with the multinational bank Habib Bank Limited (HBL) and Bank Alfalah to introduce a new biometrics-based payment solution. HBL’s biometric ATM in Islamabad has helped poor women in the Kifalat program gain easier access to cash transfers.

“Previously women had no choice. They used to go to retail shops and there were very few of them in each city. The retail agents usually made deductions from their tranches and often fraudulently deducted money. Under the new system, women will be able to go to biometric ATMs and branches,” said Dr. Nishtar, founder of HBL’s biometric ATM in Islamabad.

Concerns About the Use of Biometric Technology

While Pakistan’s experience with integrating biometric technology seems to be largely positive, the same cannot be said in general. For example, India’s systemthe world’s largestexcludes 100 million vulnerable people.

Murray Hunter, a South African digital rights activist, asked a compelling question: “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?”

Experts have said that the digital register South Africa is planning to create could lead to data leaks and identity theft if the proper safeguards are not put in place. Furthermore, the country has been hit repeatedly by cyber criminals. In 2019, the city of Johannesburg had to shut down its website and online services due to a network breach by hackers. These phishers threatened to upload all of the city’s private data online unless the government paid a ransom.

The Future Implications

While biometric technology may have the potential to make a positive impact, it seems to be just as likely to create a detrimental one. Moving forward, it is key that the Department of Home Affairs takes into account all of the attached risks. While this system may create more equality, it could also result in a serious privacy breach.


Sarah Raza is a Tech Innovation Fellow with a background in computer science from Stanford. She is passionate about exploring the implications of increased usage of artificial intelligence and machine learning.

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