Two African countries use finger-biometrics to improve voting and refugee registration systems

Published 29 August 2006

Zambia tries to shore up democracy after marred 2001 election; South Africa to use BIO-Key and Biometric Technologies systems to register 100,000 refugees

Like most media companies, our coverage of Africa is not as thorough as it could be. This week, however, both Zambia and South Africa grabbed our attention with two basic, but progressive, uses of finger-biometrics.

Zambia is not a rich country. Once a succesful exporter of copper, the country is now one of the poorest on the continent. “A colonial legacy, mismanagement, debt and disease are said to have contributed to the country’s tribulations,” reports the BBC. As for democracy, it has not existed there long enough to even have a “democratic tradition” of any sort. This is changing. In 2001, the presidential election that brought president Levy Mwanawasa to power was marred by charges of fraud and ballot-rigging. To make sure that doesn’t happen again, election officials will use this year’s elections to complete a voter fingerprint database for use in the future.

So far, the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) — purchased from South Africa-based Waymark Infotech, which has also conducted elections in Tanzania, Nigeria, and South Africa — has stored the fingerprints of four million registered voters. Much of the data came from previous elections, when voters were asked to give ink fingerprints, which were later scanned. Those that didn’t do so in the past will do so in the coming election.

Speaking of South Africa, BIO-key International (OTCB: BKYI), a developer of wireless public safety solutions and finger-based biometric identification, and Biometric Technologies South Africa announced last week that they had successfully deployed a fingerprint identification system as part of South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs Refugee Program. As one would expect, many refugees in Africa, do not have proper identification, and when they do, it is often not compatible with the South African government’s systems.

As part of the enrollment process for asylum, 100,000 refugees will be directed to five centers around the country to have their photographs taken and fingerprints collected using BIO-Key and Biometric Technologies’ system.

The new system is part of a pilot program being monitored by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “One of the challenges we face is updating the existing records for 46 million people into a single database accessible to all authorized governmental organizations: such as the criminal justice system; the population records of births, deaths, marriage passports, driver’s licenses etc.” said Edwin Dreyer, Biometric Technology’s managing director. “This is a major long-term challenge, and we are leveraging our successes — in this small but significant sector — in the refugee identification program to tackle even greater projects within the government and in private industry.”

-read more in this news release; read more in this report