Home Affairs launches new identification system

Signage above the entrance of a regional Home Affairs office
Signage above the entrance of a regional Home Affairs office
Image: FILE

Citizens of South Africa‚ Big Brother is watching.

Infant foot scans‚ facial recognition‚ iris scans ... these are all features of Home Affairs’ new identification system.

Whether you are a newborn citizen‚ an immigrant looking for greener pastures or a tourist soaking up the sun‚ the Automated Biometric Identification System will be watching and gathering information on you.

Over the next five years‚ Abis will replace the Home Affairs National Identification System‚ which is 20 years old.

Launching Abis in Cape Town on Wednesday‚ Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba said it would greatly improve personal identity security and help the police and other branches of government by giving them unprecedented access to biometric information.

“What is pressing for the police is for home affairs to fulfil requirements relating to the fingerprint search functionality. It should‚ going forward‚ provide additional biometric modalities‚ such as iris scan‚ palm print and infant footprint‚ over and above what the archaic Hanis used to provide‚” he said.

“This modern IT system will integrate with other relevant systems‚ inside and outside home affairs‚ to allow for one holistic view of the status of clients. It will serve as a single source for biometric authentication of citizens and non-citizens across state institutions and private sector entities.”

EOH‚ the company responsible for creating Abis‚ said the same type of system is used by the FBI in the US to allow real-time identification of individuals from CCTV feeds at ports of entry.

The company's project manager‚ Jeff Walker‚ said the database being implemented was seen as the global standard in identification systems.

“Law enforcement is a big stakeholder because they’ve got the prime responsibility of ensuring that they can identify individuals — be they perpetrators or suspects — accurately and quickly‚ and I think the emphasis here being speed‚” he said.

The existing criminal database had speed limitations but Abis could scan a human eye and bring up data on the individual in less than a second.

“What it enables is facial recognition through video footage. Now that is significant because you can have a crowd of people and you are able to just zoom in on video footage from ports of entry‚” said Walker.

There might human rights complications about a system which captures your information whether you like it or not.

In the UK and the US‚ civil rights organisations are increasingly voicing concerns over their intelligence agencies’ unlimited capabilities in terms of gathering information about their citizens‚ with fears about the development of states where “Big Brother” — the all-seeing entity in British writer George Orwell’s 1949 dystopian novel “1984” watches your every move.

Big tech companies around the globe have shown their willingness to spy on customers for governments‚ but Walker said that this was a constitutional issue for politicians to tackle.

“At the moment we do have all the biometric data in one database and the national population registry keeps the other database. So the state does have information on all its citizens‚” said Walker.

Visions of a dystopian police state aside‚ Abis will make it easier for residents to get an ID‚ and plans are in the works to have all of your identification documentation on a single ID smart card‚ including your passport.

According to the department the system’s improvements include:

- Faster turnaround times for ID and passport applications;

- Reduced cases of duplicate identities;

- Banks will be able to verify clients’ identities more quickly;

- Tourism will benefit due to quicker response and processing times at ports of entry;

- The police will be able to search for suspects by matching latent prints against records on Abis; and

- Improved border control will create a competitive economic environment to attract skills‚ enable growth‚ increase foreign direct investment‚ create jobs and fight poverty.

Source: TMG Digital.

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