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Biometrics partnerships and regional symbiosis driving election opportunities: Laxton

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The green field opportunities for election systems in Africa allow the development of technologies more advanced than those used in the West, according to Lyle Charles Laxton, the CEO of biometrics firm Laxton Group. COVID-19 is accelerating certain aspects of biometric market growth but impinging on the company’s ability to trade and forcing governments to divert funds away from ID-related projects to other areas.

“As a general macro trend, COVID’s definitely accelerating the adoption of biometrics. I think that trend was happening anyway, and I don’t think it’s only biometrics,” Lyle Charles Laxton told Biometric Update from New York City. “I think digital ID and anything that’s pushing services to more mobile, virtual platforms is going to be accelerated.”

The firm makes equipment for registering and verifying biometric identities and conducting elections, tailoring its offering to different regions. Laxton believes the global pandemic will shrink contact-based biometrics as a proportion of a growing market.

“For a lot of the contact-based biometric providers that there’s probably a ten-year horizon before that market really starts shrinking, possibly a five-year horizon. I think contact is here to stay for law enforcement and specific applications, another tool in the arsenal.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic could bring about a global acceleration to trends in the biometrics market, it is also affecting the ability to conduct sales. “It’s had a massive impact on trade figures,” says the CEO. The firm’s analysis of attendees of virtual events have shown a drop-off in the end users.

Meanwhile, the firm is trying to accelerate the signing on of partners across Africa. It typically establishes offices in countries where it wins large projects such as registrations for an electoral roll. Taking Ghana’s presidential election in December 2020 as a recent example, Laxton entered a joint venture with French firm Thales and worked with a local partner with significant infrastructure already in place in order to undertake nationwide registration.

Laxton also provided biometric registration technology for Malawi’s national ID card. The project required as many as 10,000 staff manning the firm’s equipment.

“The government prefers a scenario where local workforces are getting trained and upskilled and handle as much of the project as possible,” says Laxton, on why the company meets halfway with governments. “Obviously we’d like to go in and do absolutely everything but in order to satisfy the government that there’s also investment in skills and training, and uplifting of their IT workforce, it’s generally more politically favourable to actually do that.”

While several recent elections in Africa have been plagued with problems, the issues in at least some of the cases have been related to how the results of each station are collated locally and transmitted to the center.

“I think that where there’s a hole at the moment is the actual vote counts,” says Laxton. “It’s the Catch 22. A vote is supposed to be anonymous; you can’t attach a biometric to the vote. The debate is less on biometrics and more on electronic voting versus paper-based voting.”

The company develops systems for pre-election registration, on-the-day verification and voting (including electronic and online systems) and post-election processes such as vote counting.

“It’s more the implementation of the technology that’s failing, rather than the technology, so there’s a lot of improvements needed there. I think from an Africa point of view, I would probably say that keeping the ballot manual in the short to midterm future is probably safer,” says the CEO, despite the firm’s electronic voting offering. “It’s beyond just pushing a technology that favours you, you have to advise and be ready for what’s best for a country.”

The spread of technologies such as 5G could benefit the roll out of electronic voting and in the meantime, election technology firms will have a duty to keep educating the market.

Laxton Group has divided its operations into three geographical regions: EMEA, APAC and the Americas, though Africa and North America within this structure are developing something of symbiotic relationship.

“There’s a lot of technology in Africa that’s developed that we’re able to apply into the Americas or APAC region. Africa’s got a lot of green field sites where you don’t have the legacy systems sitting as hurdles in front of you,” says Laxton. “This allows you to use the latest technology, you’re not forced to integrate into existing systems. This allows a more creative playing field to test new technologies.”

Systems being progressed in Africa are more advanced than those in use in more developed regions. Lyle Charles Laxton is now talking to U.S. counties which do not currently employ biometrics in their voting about projects carried out in Africa.

“Forty-eight percent of the global rugged device market sits in North America,” says Laxton, meaning hardware developments there feed back into devices deployed in often more demanding settings in Africa.

Looking at biometrics more broadly, Laxton remains sanguine. “It’s going to become so second nature. What frightens me is that I’ve got a sense of how these technologies are being applied at the government level,” he says. Although the scaling up of biometrics such as facial recognition paired with AI engines can create very safe environments with projects such as smart cities, he believes this will come with a price: “I hope legislators around the world hit the right balance of determining what privacy is.”

This post was updated at 6:29pm Eastern on February 17, 2021 to correct that it was Malawi’s national ID card program that Laxton provided technology for, and the number of staff that used the company’s hardware.

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