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Rwanda will implement digital biometric cards for its entire population

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Rwanda joins the list of countries developing a digital identification plan. The project is funded with a $40 million budget courtesy of the World Bank. The government intends to implement it within a three-year timeframe. 


t the launch of the new system, newborns in Rwanda will receive a digital identification from day one. Additionally, from the age of 5, biometric records (fingerprints, iris, etc.) will be collected “to facilitate authentication and verification of individuals seeking services”, according to Paula Ingabire, Minister of Innovation and Information Technology of Rwanda. Until now, only individuals aged 16 and older were entitled to an identity document. In the African country, they will transition from lacking sufficient technology to collect fingerprints to creating a massive biometric database of their citizens from the moment of birth. The collection and massive storage of personal information in digital identities always raises questions about who has access to this data and how it will be used. The lack of control over data paves the way for manipulation and abuse by private companies or even the government. 

The implementation of digital identity documents, according to its promoters, will improve access to public services, digital transactions, and healthcare, foment financial inclusion and digital innovation, and contribute to economic growth. The landscape of personal identification in Rwanda has always been inconsistent, with unidentified individuals such as refugees and stateless people, and a lack of unity among records and agencies. With the new law, an attempt will be made to address this gap and provide smoother access to public services. However, this will only be achieved if the implementation occurs with the desired transparency and good faith, something that cannot be taken for granted based on other experiences where people with fewer resources are the most affected in the end. In Oakland, almost a decade ago, a digital identity program was exploited to link a prepaid debit card to each identification card, resulting in the diversion of limited resources from the most vulnerable to large corporations. A blatant scam was disguised under a banking plan. In a much more recent case in Los Angeles, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency used data collected through a digital financial assistance program targeting marginalized groups to tighten the noose on undocumented individuals and propose deportations. 

The implementation of this method will replace perhaps imperfect but secure physical identification cards that were easily manageable by anyone and not centralized or monitored by omnipresent authorities. The importance of this trend spreading across the globe is not gaining enough attention. If the defense of people’s interests were at the forefront, alternatives to biometric systems should always be guaranteed. The only way to safeguard people’s freedom and prevent their rights from being violated is to respect and legally protect the existence of physical IDs and other identification documents. Only with a serious commitment to the permanence of traditional systems can true inclusion be defended. The exposure of sensitive personal data can have devastating consequences for people’s lives, something that cannot happen with passports or physical IDs, which are the most democratic forms of identification. With an identification document in your pocket, not connected to any government, organization, or corporation, no technological expertise is required, and there is no risk of hacker attacks. 

Digital identity only makes sense if it is based on decentralized systems that give full control to each user. To do this, they should rely on humanistic providers who respect individual freedoms and take great care in each process (video identification, opening an account, verifying ID documents, etc.). 

Facilitating access to large government agencies and banks to sensitive personal data can only result in higher levels of control. Any data exchange must be based on informed consent. It is crucial that the implementation of digital identities is always voluntary, and that security is never compromised by the use of classification, identification, or tracking technologies. Governments and central banks, highly interested in digital identities, try to convince us that their adoption is essential, that our “security” depends on it. Without a real alternative, from voting in elections to getting a phone line, it will require providing individual identity credentials, with a real risk of undermining our autonomy. Digitizing identifications to make daily procedures more secure and efficient cannot be synonymous with digitizing identity. In territories like Rwanda, a significant portion of the population will have a hard time proving who they claim to be and thus accessing a service, there is a risk of turning that vulnerable mass of people into closely monitored individuals. 

The new cards that Rwandans seem willing to implement are better understood within a global context where facial recognition in public buildings, cashless transactions, social credit, and everyday life via apps are promoted. Societies that develop control systems ignoring the principles of proportionality, opinion, or the real needs of their inhabitants. In territories striving to overcome historical conflicts and find their path to development through digitization, prudence should prevail more intensely. Supporting digital and biometric authentication for access to services, aid applications, or the attainment of rights could leave behind the less technologically savvy generations and minorities, causing even more social gaps. 

Mandatory digital identity does not solve the problems. Rwanda is another victim of a present where vast amounts of personal data will be stored, opening the door to commercialization, abuse, discrimination, and power imbalances. 

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