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South Africa’s proposed new biometrics policy meets sharp criticism

Biometrics and digital ID

A draft identity management policy proposed by South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs (DHA) which will allow access by police to citizens’ biometric information in the national population register has been greeted with sharp criticism by some stakeholders.

In a recent op-ed published by Daily Maverick, Melissa Cawthra, programme and research officer at the African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum (APCOF), faults the proposal as an infringement on the rights of citizens and calls on the country’s information regulator to uphold its responsibility.

According to the draft policy, not only will the police have unfettered access to citizens’ biometric data, they can also carry out warrant-free searches on crime suspects and have all information including biometrics about them, without any court order, Cawthra says.

The policy suggests that the biometric information of all citizens and residents in the country be centralized into one database. A process to put in place an Automated Biometric Identification System (ABIS) is ongoing in South Africa.

In her argument, Cawthra raises concerns about the “the granting of overly broad powers of discretion to the police and the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) in collecting, processing and storing the sensitive personal information of nationals and non-nationals.”

She fears the situation of rights infringement is even more preoccupying as South Africa currently does not have any laws regulation police use of facial recognition software or other related surveillance technologies.

As a suggestion, Cawthra posits that the code should “include guidelines with respect to facial recognition software, big data and information matching, along with security safeguards for the ethical and responsible use of surveillance technologies” and that the set of codes drafted by the UK’s Surveillance Camera Commissioner could be used as a template for a code of conduct for the country’s surveillance industry actors.

Meanwhile in an interview published by Cape Talk, Cawthra reiterates the fact that certain safeguards must be put in place to regulate such information sharing so that the pace of the law can be on the same pedestal with the pace of technological innovation.

“What we are calling for is for more safeguards to be put in place and for the information regulator…to actually release a set of guidelines on how this information will be protected and to ensure that proper checks and balances are in place,” Cawthra says in the interview.

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