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Biometrics from birth – South Africa seeks to end child trafficking, welfare fraud

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Biometrics and digital ID

The government of South Africa is investigating biometric technologies and policies to introduce biometrics for infants to tackle child trafficking and welfare fraud where people claim benefits for a child who is not their own. A scientific study into the efficacy of infant biometrics, conducted by a team of South African researchers, has determined the relative strengths and weaknesses of capturing three types of infant biometrics: ear shape, irises and fingerprints.

Recent research by led by Clarkson University has found that irises of children between four and 11 years old remain consistent enough for measuring children over time. This new research finds iris scans from the age of just six weeks can be used for identification.

South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs (DHA) has already called for biometrics to be taken from five-year-olds. More recent announcements and research into biometrics below the age of one year are looking towards much earlier biometrics capture.

Unregistered and internationally undocumented children in South Africa

The biometric registration of infants would be rolled into the overall effort to register births which aims to register all births in health facilities within 30 days. It is not known how many undocumented children there are in South Africa, as recent questioning in parliament has revealed.

“The [home affairs] department does not have the records of undocumented children as the records at its disposal are of those who are documented,” said home affairs minister Aaron Motsoaledi, reports TimesLIVE, “As such it is difficult to ascertain the number of the undocumented children being those born to SA parents or foreign nationals.”

As the largest economy in the region, South Africa attracts migration, particularly within southern Africa, with many arrivals and their families not being fully registered. There have been reports of the selling of birth certificates of children who have died and whose deaths are not registered. Motsoaledi also said 52 children were repatriated to Zimbabwe, Angola, Botswana, Nigeria and Mozambique between 2019 and 2021, though it is not clear in what circumstances.

“The department of home affairs is in collaboration with International Social Services (ISS), which is a unit within the department of social development (DSD) that renders intercountry social assistance, paying particular attention to destitute and vulnerable children who might have experienced social problems as a result of international migration,” said Motsoaledi, quoted by TimesLIVE.

South Africans undergo biometric capture at the age of 16 giving their fingerprints when applying for their Home Affairs-issued identity booklets, or fingerprint and face for the smart card which is replacing the booklet, but the government is calling for biometric coverage from birth to bridge the gap up to the age of 16.

The automated biometric identification system (ABIS) being developed by the Department for Home Affairs will add face biometrics, palm prints and iris scans and the government is hoping to begin including infants, depending on the ongoing research by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

Motsoaledi said that the official identity management policy approved by the cabinet for public consultation in the last financial year recommends that a combination of different biometrics for children be considered such as fingerprints, palm prints and footprints.

“This will depend on the availability of proven technology,” said Motsoaledi. “The policy will be submitted to cabinet for approval by March 31, 2022. Once approved by cabinet, the policy will be translated into a new Identification Act that will regulate capturing of personal information (biographic and biometric data) for all children born in SA.”

Baby biometrics research

The research by the CSIR is an attempt to find a way to capture infant biometrics to create secure identifiers that could identify a child through growing up and into adulthood. The work is well underway after launching in 2017, with preliminary results released earlier in 2021.

Wherever possible, the scientists use existing technologies – hardware and software – developed for capturing and reading adult biometrics in order to make any new approaches for infants as compatible as possible with existing systems. They have also had to develop new technologies such as higher resolution and contactless fingerprint scanners. A contactless fingerprint scanner for infants was also developed by researchers affiliated with UC San Diego in 2018.

The report finds that “ear biometrics are easy to acquire from birth and existing algorithms which were developed for adult ears do work for infants’ ears as well.” The researchers developed hardware of a range of sizes to acquire fingerprints from infants down to six weeks old. This fingerprint data is in a format compatible with existing fingerprint comparison software.

“We have also shown that iris biometrics can be used to successfully match individuals from as early as 6 weeks and that the acquisition rate improves as children become older,” states the report, although small sample sizes were made smaller still by uncooperative babies, suggesting iris capture could be unsuitable.

The CSIR did not find that any one modality came out as a clear lead and gave recommendations on each approach and how to combine the modalities “to create more robust and more accurate biometric recognition systems for infants and to extend these systems for effective use from birth to adulthood.” For example, ear shapes are easiest to acquire, but also the least secure. Iris biometrics entail the opposite challenge.

The team has outlined further work to build an overall system for capturing and handling infant biometrics, including improvements on the acquisition hardware and the best ways to combine multiple types of biometrics. The team is also going to investigate the introduction of different biometrics at different ages in various use-cases.

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