South Africa’s plan to record all babies’ biometrics raises privacy fears.

South Africa’s plans to photograph and fingerprint every baby born in the country for a digital register could lead to data leaks and identity theft without robust safeguards, rights experts said. 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. Government data shows that one in ten of some 1 million babies born in South Africa each year are not registered at birth and without birth certificates, they risk exclusion from school and health care and denial of citizenship.

Under this proposed policy, all children, including those whose parents are migrants or stateless, meaning no country recognises them as citizens, will receive a digital number, however, this does not translate to automatic citizenship.

According to Joseph Atick, an executive chairman of ID4Africa, a charity organisation which promotes digital identification or online identity across the continent, governments need to have digital registers of their population to deliver services.

“(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,” said Atick.

South Africa passed the Protection of Personal Information Act in 2013. The act aims to protect private data held by government, businesses and individuals from security breaches, theft and misuse, but key elements still need to be enacted. The country has been hit repeatedly by cyber criminals. The city of Johannesburg ended up shutting 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.

According to the World Bank, about 1 billion people globally lack identity proofs, which are often vital to access welfare payments, open businesses, obtain mobile phone lines and vote. The World Bank is also 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.

According to a 2019 study by Dalberg, a consulting firm, India’s system, which is the largest in the world, has come under fire for excluding about 100 million vulnerable people, many of whom are homeless or transgender and have been denied essential services.

“Digital identity systems are complex and there needs to be significant oversight to ensure that any system that is implemented is not subject to abuse,” said Avani Singh, director of ALT Advisory, a data privacy law firm.

“As members of the public increasingly – and rightfully – demand agency over their personal information, we need to ensure that any digital identity system is robust, secure, trustworthy, lawful and inclusive,” said Singh.

Currently, South Africans apply for a digital ID number at the age of 16, and their photos and fingerprints are taken.

The draft identity management policy seeks to capture more biometric data, such as photos of eyes, hands, feet and ears – and possibly DNA collection in the future – to ensure no one lives without “a legal record of existence”.

The policy is open for public comment until 28 February, after which it will be drafted into a bill.

Murray Hunter, a South African digital rights activist who authored “Boris the BabyBot”, a children’s book about surveillance, was sceptical 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?” he asked.

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