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From dompas to smart card

The state is acquiring hi-tech tools to boost service delivery but this will also increase social control

Stefaans Brmmer

Minister of Home Affairs Mangosuthu Buthelezi on Monday called himself a “libertarian” who believes in vigilance “to ensure that once acquired, liberties and freedoms are not placed in jeopardy by subsequent actions of government”. That said, he unveiled Hanis, an information-age tool of social control potentially much more powerful than apartheid’s dompas.

Hanis, short for Home Affairs National Identification System, is a R1-billion computer system designed to store and match all South Africans’ identity details, photographs and fingerprints. When an intended complement is rolled out over the next few years computer-chip “smart card” IDs to replace ID books the personal information held by the state may include your medical, employment and welfare details, and even some of your movements and spending habits.

South Africans have accepted Hanis without so much as a squeak over the potential invasion of their privacy. This comes at a time when debate is raging in the United States and Britain over “back-door” attempts to introduce national identification schemes post-September 11. The technology used by Hanis and the envisaged smart ID have been available for some time, but governments have been reticent to implement it on the scale that is intended locally.

The basic Hanis that sparked into action on Monday is an imposing bank of computer hardware and operator stations running software that can identify fingerprints in an instant. It is housed at government’s New Cooperation Building in Pretoria a National Key Point where the strictest security applies.

When Buthelezi unveiled the system he was sensitive to charges that the state had aspirations to Big Brotherhood. But he said social delivery, not control, was his aim: “Many countries [are] suspicious of the degree of social control which the state may acquire through a population register and the universal fingerprinting of its population. However, we have now changed the emphasis of the purposes for which this important tool of administration has been developed, shifting from social control to improved governance.”

Buthelezi emphasised the system’s utility in fighting crime, especially that based on identity fraud. He promised easier access to government services such as pension and welfare payments, and private sector applications.

Buthelezi’s reassurances, however, jar against language his department uses to justify the system. The home affairs website speaks, apartheid-style, of “social diversity in the make-up of communities [whose] levels of civilisation and literacy determine the extent to which the subjects can be governable Nonetheless, the Depart- ment of Home Affairs has to track them all down.”

National identification and population control in South Africa stem from the early 1950s when the apartheid government introduced a population register enforcing racial classification, and pass laws forcing blacks to carry the hated dompas. Race classification was dropped with the demise of apartheid, but the register grew in scope and its attendant information includes birth, marriage and other “life-event” details, photographs and fingerprints. The register forms the basis for the ID book.

What does Hanis change? It will fulfil a home affairs dream from the mid-1980s to put all this information much of it still stored on paper on to a single, searchable computer database. The fingerprint recognition software gives the department and its clients a particularly powerful tool to instantly verify the identity of anyone whose details are stored on Hanis.

As of this month new ID applications will go directly on to Hanis, while existing records are to be transferred over time. Department of Home Affairs Director General Billy Masethla this week estimated it would take 18 months to capture the civic details of all South Africans on Hanis.

The Cabinet approved Hanis in 1996, and a tender was awarded three years later to Marpless Consortium, led by a joint venture between the Marubeni trading house of Japan and information technology company Plessey South Africa, and including multinational tech giants NEC and Unysis.

The original Hanis tender included the computer system now inaugurated, plus then-envisaged bar-code ID cards, at a total cost that the treasury pegged at just over R1-billion. But the department and the Cabinet later had second thoughts about the bar-code ID and removed it from the Marpless contract, with a R70-million reduction in the contract price. A much grander scheme was thought up: to issue a separate tender for a smart card ID to complement Hanis.

Buthelezi told Parliament in 2000 that the smart card would cost an estimated R2,5-billion extra to implement, but Masethla this week said current estimates were “nowhere near R2-billion at all”. Masethla said he was waiting for final Cabinet approval to issue the tender, and that the first card would come off the production line 18 months later.

A departmental “request for information”, a document circulated to potential tenderers in mid-2000, specifies some of the information the smart card’s computer chip should be able to store. These include standard ID information with photograph and fingerprint minutiae, but also:

Unemployment insurance number and payments;

Health information including blood type, allergies, last 10 medical treatments and prescriptions;

Housing subsidy application and subsidy details, erf number, spouse and dependant details;

Welfare details including pension number and transactions, payment point and amount receivable; and

Drivers’ licence codes and vehicles registered to owner.

Added would be an e-purse, so that the card can be used much as a debit card. The card would be available to government departments and private institutions such as banks to verify identity before services can be accessed your fingerprints would be scanned at terminals and electronically compared to information stored on the card or, online, to that on the Hanis database.

More applications would include building access and immigration functions: Buthelezi said he envisaged foreigners would be issued temporary cards on arrival implying that illegal immigrants can be denied a whole range of services.

The end result is a vastly improved state capacity to grant or to withhold services from individuals. And the state will access much more personal information than before. Hanis will theoretically be able to log where you have done what kinds of transactions, when your card is swiped and communicates with the central computer.

Whether this information will be open to abuse by actors as diverse as direct marketers and intelligence agents will depend largely on two factors: whether suitable technological, bureaucratic and legal barriers are put in place to prevent wrongful access; and whether the state retains its democratic character to keep respecting these barriers. Of some concern should be that the basic Hanis, with its powerful fingerprint recognition capabilities, has already been inaugurated without any legal amendments.

Vinodh Jaichand, the national director of Lawyers for Human Rights, this week said: “Who is going to use this information? The public needs to know in advance. There needs to be a debate about this The potential is there for abuse.”

Similar debate has been raging in the US and Britain after September 11. Neither country issues a national ID. But the US has mooted standardising state drivers’ licences, while in Britain a government service “entitlement card” has been proposed. Both initiatives are being fiercely debated, with opponents like the powerful American Civil Liberties Union slamming “backdoor” attempts at national identification.

Professor Shadrack Gutto of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at Wits University said of the South African system: “You can see that it has potential good, and also lurking danger; that when you have a government that is not up to scratch, it can be abusive.”

Buthelezi said on Monday that he had asked former presidential law adviser Fink Haysom to advise on privacy safeguards.

Masethla denied any knowledge of this, but said safeguards would come in the form of compartmentalisation of data the police, for example, would not be able to get someone’s medical information without cooperation from the Department of Health.

There would need to be rules to determine under what conditions information could be shared, and he suggested that the appropriate time for debate on that would be when legislation is designed to govern the issuing of the cards.

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