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Cover image of Southern Africa Digital Rights Issue 3

This article was originally published as the editorial for Issue 3 of Southern Africa Digital Rights, an online publication produced under the project "The African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms: Fostering a human rights-centred approach to privacy, data protection and access to the internet in Southern Africa".

Across the continent, biometric data collection systems are being implemented at an increasing pace and for a variety of reasons. And yet, as this issue of Southern Africa Digital Rights makes clear, there is no or slow commensurate roll-out of measures to ensure that such biometric data collection and processing systems are secure and to the actual benefit of the societies in which they are being implemented. Oftentimes the installation of these biometric data collection systems is closely linked to the creation of digital identification (ID) systems.

It its 2022 State of Internet Freedom in Africa report, which focused on the roll-out of biometric data collection systems across the continent, the Collaboration for ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) found that these systems are meant to “fast-track the recognition and registration of 494 million people in Sub- Saharan Africa who form 45 per cent of people worldwide who do not have any form of official proof of legal identity.”

However, CIPESA pointed out that these systems “present new risks to the realisation and enjoyment of human rights and freedoms.”

Similarly, with respect to digital ID systems, on the recent International Identity Day, which fell on 16 September 2023, global privacy rights advocacy group Privacy International (PI) emphasised that there was a global “identity crisis” because “the technology-driven ID systems being implemented around the world are leading to new forms of surveillance and exclusion”.

This is a serious charge, as these systems are touted as being implemented in the interest of personal and societal safety. However, PI found that while there “are numerous reasons given by proponents for the introduction or use of an ID system, including identity fraud prevention, national security, crime prevention, financial industry facilitation and the prevention of human trafficking”, these systems are actually being used in many cases “to facilitate targeting, profiling and surveillance”.

It was against this backdrop that we felt it necessary to place the issues around biometric data collection and processing systems and digital IDs under a glaring regional light.

As this issue illustrates, the “worrying manifestations” of concerns around these systems cut across the six spotlighted countries and the region as a whole. 

Eswatini has become the bellwether in terms of violations on the regional digital rights landscape, and in this edition regulatory happenings in that country once again paint a threatening picture.

In Botswana, Namibia and Malawi authorities are struggling to come up with legislative measures to safeguard privacy rights as they seek to craft biometric data collection and digital ID policies, or to implement such systems where frameworks already exist.

In our Zambia contribution there is a call for a citizen-centric approach to implementing such systems, while in Zimbabwe concerns abound about the state’s intentions with digital ID systems.

In the end, it remains unclear what impact these systems will have on the countries under the spotlight, but one thing is certain, the trends are worrisome.

With this edition, then, we hope to inform advocacy groups across the region to be on guard as biometric data collection and processing, as well as digital ID, systems are rolled out on them.

We need to be vigilant.