Biometrics building trust in African elections, laws must do their part

ID4Africa event shows emerging consensus on direction for democratic integrity
Categories Biometrics News  |  Elections  |  ID for All  |  In Depth
Biometrics building trust in African elections, laws must do their part

Two-thirds of people attending ID4Africa’s ‘Building Trust in the Democratic Process’ livecast event say biometrics have improved the integrity of Africa’s elections. Further improving integrity, however, will require legislation and public education.

The 18th Livecast from the Movement, and the finale of its second season. The third is scheduled to begin in September, and the Movement’s next in-person meeting for June, 2022.

The event was hosted by ID4Africa Executive Chairman Dr. Joseph Atick, and included experts from African electoral authorities, biometrics providers and civil society in deep discussion about creating and maintaining trusted electoral processes, improving accessibility with technology, and protecting voter data from manipulative forces.

Biometrics have been used in elections in Africa for 20 years, Atick pointed out, in registration campaigns, de-duplication, and sometimes voter verification at the polls.

“By providing a credible line of defense against identity fraud, biometrics have been credited with enhancing public trust and with limiting disputes and post-election violence, which have plagued the continent in the early days of democracy,” he said.

Electoral laws requiring the sharing of voter rolls, meanwhile, are coming into conflict with nascent data protection laws, creating an apparent tension between accountability and privacy. Fair information practices, and possibly new regulations are needed to combat the scourge of “Selective dissemination of information” or microtargeting.

Atick compared the need for change to the situation in the investment world prior to 2000, when selective disclosure created an uneven playing field for investors, resulting in a breakdown in confidence. New rules about fair disclosure were enacted in response.

What data do election authorities need?

The review of four African countries shows approaches that differ primarily based on the state of their civil registries and foundation ID systems.

South Africa does not use biometrics in its electoral roll, but the national population registry does, Sy Mamabolo of the IEC explains, allowing biometrics to be used in elections processes without creating a new or separate database of voter information.

In Kenya, the IEBC uses the National identity card to confirm age and citizenship, Michael Ouma of the IEBC says, with biometrics then used in voter verification on election day.

When Atick asked why the IEBC takes that extra responsibility, Ouma responded that the civil registry included many problematic records, such as people sharing ID numbers or multiple registrations, forcing the IEBC to build its own registry.

In Guinea, the civil registry is not digitized, Djenabou Camara-Touré of the CENI said, so likewise, the election authority must operate its own registry. That registry has included ten fingerprints for some years, but recently added face biometrics, in part to run age estimation developed by Innovatrics against its registry to catch under-age voters, with some success.

Biometric deduplication for uniqueness has been available for 20 years, but for age controls the application is still novel and maturing.

Chidi Nwafor from INEC discussed the integration of the database operated by Nigeria’s NIMC with the electoral system, which will not be completed in time for its next election, and the country’s launch of online voter registration.

It was also pointed out that bringing in face enables possible age verification, but also a backup in case fingerprint verification fails.

New technologies, approaches coming

Lyle Charles Laxton represented Laxton and Vincent Bouatou represented Idemia in a discussion about recent advances in the biometric technologies used in elections, how those technologies can be implemented in a more sustainable way, and how they can help further improve trust.

Bouatou told the audience that the accuracy of biometric election systems is very robust once six or more fingers are collected, and emphasized the importance of face as a second modality to support wider inclusion.

Atick noted that critics are still using bumps along the road of biometrics adoption, though they may be a part of the learning curve which has been left in the past.

Laxton responded that there are very different options available than there were a decade ago, but the biggest change may come from standardization and business model evolution, rather than technology innovation.

“I think the community, we have to push the model into an elections-as-a-service model,” he said.

This could drive costs down from current estimates of $3 to $5 per each registered voter. Countries providing consistent and well-defined standards for the quality of biometric templates will makes it easier to productize elections-as-a-service technologies for less costly, temporary use in their elections, Laxton says.

He also suggests that the implementation of IoT methodologies into election equipment can enable trust through analytics.

In a poll, participants were asked if biometrics have helped improve the integrity of electoral processes in Africa, with two-thirds answering affirmatively, compared to 13 percent answering ‘no.’

No technology panacea

Taona Mwanyisa of The Carter Center told attendees that while civil society is already playing a role in auditing elections to improve trust to some extent, an enabling legal framework is needed to expand this role.

A former election official from Chad joined the discussion to point out that elections are regularly criticized even with biometrics assuring the legitimacy of the voter roll. Dr. Isaac Rutenberg of CIPIT Kenya recounted how a political party in the country used 58 pages of server logs as evidence that the system had been hacked, despite them showing no such thing.

A poll on the greatest concern about using biometrics in election showed no consensus, with five different concerns and no concern each garnering between 11 and 27 percent of the votes.

Amber Sinha of CIS (the Centre for Internet & Society) in India responded to the results with the observation that exclusion has been the biggest problem in India for many processes involving digital ID, since the introduction of Aadhaar.

Rutenberg spoke about the uncertainty about the details of Huduma Namba’s use in elections, and data protections. Grace Mutung’u of CIPIT highlighted the need for electoral bodies to be truly independent from political parties.

On how to deal with the appearance of conflict between transparency and privacy, Privacy International’s Lucy Purdon said privacy can support transparency, and the values do not conflict with regards to electoral rolls. Parties have a legitimate interest in seeing it, she notes, but there need to be rules about sharing it to prevent outsourced parties from using the data they contain to selectively disseminate information or target certain groups.

Bouatou returned to the panel to describe research currently being done into increasing the transparency of votes by allowing individuals to check that their own ballot was processed properly, without breaking the privacy of the ballot.

The consensus that emerged among electoral authorities and civil society stakeholders is that biometrics and other technology can help, but that strong institutions must play their roles effectively, and technology cannot substitute for these and other social aspects.

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