I’m still struggling to understand the Orwellian doublespeak with which politicians unveiled South Africa’s new biometrically-enhanced smart ID card just over a year ago. The idea that somehow, the old ID cards and population databases represent oppression and the vilified dompass, but the new ones represent freedom and democracy because they have a neat looking chip on them is totally lost on me.

At the launch of the new ID, then home affairs minister Naledi Pandor said that:

With this system we are consolidating the process that our democratic dispensation launched in 1994 to restore the identity, citizenship and dignity of all South Africans. The smart ID card puts paid to the indignity, humiliation and marginalisation to which the majority of South Africans were subjected over centuries of colonial and apartheid rule, when various authorities sought to subjugate and strip indigenous people of their identity.

Which struck me as odd. The government is building a centralised database which will be used for authenticating civil and commercial activities. To me, that’s the last word in Big Brother tech and means has huge implications for people who will eventually end up victims of identity theft anyway – because crooks are always one step ahead of the system – or simply lose their ID cards regardless and find themselves shut out of everything from their bank account and parking lot.

Still, that’s just my opinion. But fortunately, it seems that I’m not alone.

Professor of journalism at the University of Johannesburg Jane Duncan has written a long and exceptionally well detailed essay over at the South African Civil Society Information Service, where she uses the example of neighbouring Mauritius (which is also introducing a smart card ID) to show why South Africans should really care more about this issue. Duncan writes:

One organisation involved in the struggle, Lalit de Klas, is arguing that the system, dubbed ‘big brother’, will allow the government to build up a profile of individuals that could be used against them in future if they are considered to be threats to government interests…

Centralised biometric databases are the perfect police state tool.

Why is centralising all citizen data bad? Duncan points to Israel – not a nation known for being lax about security – which suffered a massively embarrassing data breach in 2006 which resulted in its entire population register being dumped on the net.

She goes on to cite campaigns against compulsory biometric ID cards in the UK, US and Germany.

South Africa is not compelling its citizens to enrol and carry ID cards; but, there is compulsion by stealth, as people will gradually be unable to undertake basic civil functions without a card.

Why have biometric databases not become as controversial in South Africa as they have elsewhere? According to Wits University academic Keith Breckenridge, opposition usually begins when engineers and scientists, who understand the technical issues, team up with journalists, civil society and grassroots movements to publicise the dangers.

In South Africa, low levels of public awareness of the dangers allowed biometrics to be introduced to the social security system, and then extended to the national population register. The technology press have tended to publish fawning articles extolling the virtues of biometrics, while the investigative press have focussed on corruption and mismanagement in the Department. The fact that the reportage has been confined to a fairly narrow range of issues, has left the broader issues around privacy and surveillance largely unaired. With one or two notable exceptions, the technical part of society has not spoken out.

And frankly, I couldn’t agree more. There are interesting uses of biometrics in the commercial world, but even Apple goes to great pains to stress that it does all of its clever iPhone security on device and building a vast data warehouse of personal information like that is a bit intrusive.

It’s a great piece, and you should go and read the full thing over at SACSIS’ site here.

[Image – CC 2.0 Chad Miller]
Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar, Wired.co.uk, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.