Citizen identity defined

July 2010 News & Events

The South African citizen is likely to see (and touch) more biometrics in the coming years.

For over a century and a half now, citizen fingerprints have been an integral part of the South African citizen’s identity, and thus today, departments such as Home Affairs and Social Development among others, link such biometrics to an individual’s registration as a citizen, issuance of an ID book, passport and driving licence, attest records of education, marriage, divorce and inheritance as well as to disburse state welfare pensions.

Fingerprints have also, like in the rest of the world, played a crucial role in crime detection, adding scientific precision to the establishment of culpability, and in the long run deter offenders from repeating criminal acts. South Africa will shortly be adding yet other dimensions to the biometric capability, capacity and infrastructure – critical drivers being the recently enacted Child Protection and Sexual Offenders Acts.

Making the situation more complex and contentious has been the recent amendment to the Forensic Bill, almost simultaneously with the introduction of the Privacy of Personal Information (POPI) Bill, both addressing different and yet fundamentally inter-related issues, bringing us to face questions surrounding the use of technologies such as biometrics to tread upon individual identity.

On one hand, law enforcement agencies surely need a wider mandate to ascertain identities, whether it is of immigrants, private security personnel, individuals managing critical installations and facilities as well as an entire range of state and corporate staff, among others. However, on the other hand, modern democratic societies have chosen protection of individual privacy to be of paramount importance. It is thus the age-old debate between security and protection versus privacy and liberty. In some way, these two bills have thus attempted to find the best trade-off and the most effective cross-check between the two.

Nonetheless, we are going to see biometrics usage grow even further in the next few years, and also see dramatic changes in the way biometrics are deployed. We will also see the diversification of this technology beyond fingerprints to facial, iris and vein recognition among others, is also likely to change not only the rules, but the game itself.

At the forthcoming Citizen Identity event, on 27 September, these and other issues will be discussed.

For more information contact Carol Willis, +27 (0)11 462 1690,

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