Are we being hoodwinked?

Biometric ID Card Project

Why on earth should our ‘fingerprint images and minutiae’ continue to be collected in the context of the registration and issuance of new Identity Cards after the Supreme Court ruling in May 2015 that the ‘provisions in the National Identity Card Act and the Data Protection Act for the storage and retention of fingerprints and other personal biometric data collected for the purpose of the biometric identity card of a citizen of Mauritius are unconstitutional’?

Law abiding citizens are naturally averse to being fingerprinted. People also had strong reservations regarding the merits of a biometric ID card project estimated to cost a huge $40 million (some Rs 1.3 Billion) when it was started in 2013. However, the identity card is such an important document in our lives for a host of administrative procedures and verifications that most people complied ‘under duress’ in the face of the Damocles sword of the short timeline imposed on the validity of the old ID card (repeatedly postponed) and the stiff penalties applicable for non compliance. The National Identity Card Act in fact ‘provides that any person who contravenes the Act, or any regulations made under it, shall commit an offence for which he or she shall be liable, on conviction, to a fine not exceeding 100,000 rupees and to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years.’

In spite of all the State blitzkrieg to corral citizens to register for the new ID card, there are however, still a certain proportion of Mauritians who held their ground and like undeterred ‘Mohicans’ continued to contest the measures which encroached on their fundamental rights. The court cases entered to protest against the modalities of registration and constitutionality of the new ID card in essence echoed the discomfort of conscientious objectors among citizens against being fingerprinted as well as the legitimate apprehension of an insidious Big Brother control over personal biometric data of citizens. The Supreme Court ruling was therefore welcomed with a big sigh of relief in the population.

The role of government is to satisfactorily address the legitimate concerns of citizens, the more so when these are upheld by the Supreme Court. Their brief is to facilitate the lives of citizens and not complicate it to the point of forcing them to seek redress through the courts. It is therefore flabbergasting to note from the Cabinet decision of 4 September 2015 that ‘the fingerprint image and minutiae collection will continue as previously’ and that ‘only the ID card will contain the minutiae which will be used for one-to-one verification and not for identification purposes.’ The terminology of ‘minutiae’ used in the Cabinet decision in reality means the major features of a fingerprint used for comparisons of one print with another.

Verification in simple logic basically means the comparison and matching of the minutiae (of the fingerprint) captured in the biometric ID card with recorded and stored data acting as verification yardsticks. Now that the Supreme Court has decreed that ‘the storage and retention of fingerprints and other personal biometric data collected for the purpose of the biometric identity card of a citizen of Mauritius as unconstitutional’, how will the verification of the identity of the citizen be made through the fingerprint image in the absence of a matching specimen and of the other elements contained therein? More importantly, under these circumstances why should fingerprint images of citizens with their minutiae be taken in the first place then, when these can neither be retained, stored and therefore used as a yardstick témoin for verification? Ça ne tient pas la route.

Furthermore, the minutiae of the fingerprint and other biometric data contained in the new ID card hold the risk that this data could be accessed and reconstituted. Is there a secure and foolproof protective device in the chip contained in the ID card to protect and prevent the fingerprint minutiae and other biometric data from being copied and kept in a database by anyone including organizations or companies dealing with a large client base of citizens for their own purposes? Now that the records of the fingerprint images and minutiae together with backup tapes have been destroyed, Government should also urgently erase these from all previously issued new ID cards.

We must therefore collectively ensure that the ‘protection afforded to the integrity and privacy of the person under section 9 (1) of the Constitution’ and the interests of the public are never at risk. It follows from the above that all the relevant provisions relating to the taking of fingerprint images and their minutiae should be deleted from the National Identity Card Act which must be reviewed accordingly into a new legal framework.

Urgent steps must also be taken to protect citizens’ personal data from being hacked and illegally stored. Fingerprint images and their minutiae should therefore no longer be taken for use as elements for the registering and issuance of new ID cards in our democratic country. The biometric photo and specimen signature of the ID card holder as well as his unique ID card number are adequately secure yardsticks to verify the identity of the ID card holder.

* * *

Epilogue – The BAI scandal

The MBC TV debate on the BAI scandal last Friday in essence simply provided a platform for the protagonists from the government and the opposition as well as some journalists to vie with each other as to the merits or otherwise of the manner the crisis of unprecedented magnitude and collateral damage was managed. However, instead of a futile one-upmanship about who is right or wrong, what is much more important now that the dust has settled is to first and foremost comprehensively address the systemic shortcomings and failures of our regulatory system and authorities entrusted with the task of diligently overseeing and rigorously regulating the financial sector, brought to light during the crisis. We can truly hope of establishing a transparent, reliable, world class and robust financial sector only if we urgently strengthen the regulatory framework and induct the competent and seasoned top cadres with the expertise required to effect this transformation and managing it efficiently. This should be a priority.

We must remember that despite the BAI auditors’ report to the BAI Audit Committee comprising the top brass of the company dated March 2011 warning them that the company faced the prospect of a massive loss of Rs 13.5 billion in the financial year ending 31 December 2013, the owners of the company as well as the regulatory authorities and all those concerned with a rigorous management of our financial sector failed to take any remedial action commensurate with the weight and diversity of the company in the economy and the scale of the crisis. It is only when the scandal was uncovered in April 2015 that the full extent of the substantial haemorrhage of funds from the investment pot contributed by savers, toxic investments and the un-sustainability of the whole group was exposed. We must also remember that all this occurred under the watch of the financial authorities, regulators and internal and external auditors who have to be made answerable.

The billions of Rupees invested by savers from all walks of Mauritian life into investment products shows that savers’ funds represent a tremendous asset for the country and need to be judiciously harnessed. Against the backdrop of low savings rates offered by most banks and a negative net rate last year, it is therefore important that the beefed up regulatory authorities first diligently vet all investment products of financial institutions licensed to operate in Mauritius, offering higher returns through an appropriate system of certification, before they are allowed to be marketed.

Above all, we need to ensure that investors are never again made to endure the profound anguish and trauma that the tens of thousands of hapless investors who include the retired, the elderly and people from all walks of life have had to and continue to go through, through no fault of theirs, as a result of the alleged scam. As we know, some investors in capital protected investment instruments have even had their capital invested unfairly and discriminatorily cut off by 15% and 20% at source.

The government must also bear in mind the human dimensions of the crisis such as the real risk that in view of their age some of the elderly retired investors may not be there to claim their debentures staggered over a five-year period ending July 2020. Every effort must therefore be made to urgently recuperate the funds despoiled from investors’ funds so that the capital of the victims is, if possible reimbursed at the earliest.

The country has a heavy legacy to carry. It is therefore not the time for makeshift measures, sterile politicking, knee jerk reactions, managing by trial and error or recycling past strategies that fail to take off. It is the time to reach out to tap all our expert resources in diverse fields to enable innovative initiatives and bold decision making which above all put people, their diverse concerns and substantively improved well being at the centre of government policies and actions.

  • Published in print edition on 18 September 2015

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