Guest post: Using biometrics to secure African identities

Guest post: Using biometrics to secure African identities

Eric Billiaert, communication director of government programmes at Gemalto, explains how biometric identification data can secure the identities of African citizens, and faith in government bodies to keep identifying information secure.

African nation states are leaping the technology divide with the rapid deployment of electronic identification systems to register their entire populations. The possession of a bonafide identity document is foundational to the creation of civil society. It enables citizens to exercise fully their rights as members of society: their right to vote in an electoral system that is fraud and error free; provide access to health insurance coverage, apart from other valuable legal documents, and lastly restore the bond of trust between these citizens and their governments.

Additionally, through the secure identification of individuals, these states hope to boost their development through the use of Internet and other communication technologies (ICTs), speed up economic and social growth, and finally promote the emergence of a modern state with both national and international reach.

In the field of digital security, the application of biometrics has been successful largely because it has enabled authorities to identify individuals reliably and quickly. Once the preserve of niche applications – largely military – biometrics is now widely used for the identity of the general public. No central database for fingerprints is required, since data is checked offline by the processor of the microchip card itself, which compares the fingerprint in its system with the one the fingerprint reader registers for the patient in the room in the case of healthcare.

Accuracy of the identification however is dependent on the reliability of the equipment used to capture data. To meet this need, Gemalto has responded to the call of a handful of states which wanted to join the race towards digital development, and which are now veritable trailblazers in the field. These technologies can be rapidly deployed, especially in areas that are difficult to access.

Making Benin electoral rolls secure

Benin recently implemented a digitised registration system for voters, reduce the risk of fraud, and thereby restore faith in the electoral process. Through an enrolment process, the civil and biometric data of the entire electoral population was captured, providing the backbone for a national database reflecting the electoral biometric identity of the Beninese people.

The enrolment solution comprised a sturdy portable briefcase containing a digital camera, fingerprint scanner, laptop, electronics power supply board and a software suite to record civil data, fingerprints and digital photos of citizens in situ. The result: the capture of civil and biometric data of the entire electoral population – some six million people – on a single national database within a period of just three months from award of contract.

Once the data had been processed centrally, a nationwide application assigned voters to polling stations and then generated electoral rolls. The provision of a biometric de-duplication module checked for any irregularities and ensured that no individual was registered twice.

Gabonese health insurance coverage

The CNAMGS (National health insurance and social security fund in Gabon) was created in 2009 out of Gabon’s desire to offer its poorest citizens minimum health coverage while modernizing the health insurance system. The Gabonese government chose the biometric identification of beneficiaries to provide minimum health coverage for citizens living in conditions of economic hardship while preventing the potential fraudulent abuse of entitlements.

Gemalto was entrusted with overseeing the roll out of the national electronic health insurance program, which was divided into four phases: the biometric registration of beneficiaries, the issuing of polycarbonate beneficiary cards, secure customisation and finally the deployment of verification terminals.

Using the same model as the electoral enrolment system deployed in Benin, the Gabonese beneficiary registration campaign was conducted by representatives who travelled widely to meet local populations often in remote and difficult to access locations. 130 registration centres were also set up throughout the country, performing up to 1,500 registrations per day, with 1.5 million healthcare cards issued in total. A health insurance card was then created with encrypted biometric and personal data stored on the microchip of the card.

The beneficiary card can be used in approved hospitals, pharmacies and healthcare centers. A verification terminal equipped with a scanner reads the fingerprints of the cardholder and compares them against the reference fingerprints stored on a contactless chip. The cardholder is thus instantly authenticated as the insured party, without requiring a connection to the centralised fingerprint database.

Those examples, amongst others, demonstrate how the technology can come on board to meet the needs of African countries and contribute to the modernisation of state services.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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