One of the unarguable accusations of our leaders in Nigeria is a lack of Foresight. With many only interested in what they can get within a two to three year window; planning long term for the nation is out of the question. Unless of course; all the contract payments can be advanced immediately for a project they know will soon be abandoned.
This short sightedness now seem to have taken on a new and dangerous proportion. Recently, I got an email from my bank about a new CBN rule relation to Biometric Verification database that the CBN wants of all bank customers. On the face of it, this look harmless, but let us consider the facts in Nigeria.
- To register to vote and obtain your voters card; the INEC will collect your Biometric Information and keep the information within its organisation.
- To obtain a Drivers Licence, the FRSC will collect your Biometric Information and store same within the organisation.
- To get a new travelling Passport, the Passport Office (Ministry of Internal Affairs); will collect your Biometric information and store within the organisation.
- The Telecoms Companies all request for Biometric data from each customer to register.
- Then we have the new National ID card with MasterCard as the colonial master; again your Biometric Information will be collected and stored within the Organisation.
- We are told that the next Census in 2016 is likely to involve the Population Commission collecting Biometric Information of Nigerians.
Now the CBN is also asking for the same Biometric Information from Nigerians. Can anybody see what is wrong with this picture? Why are several government agencies and private companies repeatedly collecting Biometric information from Nigerians over and over again? Where is the joined up government that is needed to deliver efficient public services? Why are we reinventing the wheel, instead of simply looking at best practice to guide our decisions?
In the developed world with all their technology and advances; millions of people’s data are stolen every now and then. With details of over 30million HMRC users’ data stolen a few years ago in the UK to the details of over 70Million Americans stolen from Target stores in the USA, I can go on and give numerous examples of data breaches in the Western countries. This has led to a booming black economy in Identity Theft.
With many having their lives turned upside down by people who harvested their data and electronically pretended to be them to commit all kinds of atrocities. And these cases; the Biometric information of citizens are obtained ONLY ONCE by a central government agency. All other parties simply interrogate this central database as and when needed. This is the best practice approach. Several agencies can collect biometrics for verification; but then do not store the information. They simply compare with the central database to verify your identity. They do not create multiple Biometric data pools that will become a Christmas gift to thieves and those that are up to no good.
With the level of corruption and lawlessness in Nigeria; I am certain these biometric information will be subject of theft and breaches in the near future. My concern is elevated by the unbridled graft and lack of scruples that exist in our public life. I was at a restaurant in Lagos recently and I overhead the couple seating next to me discussing a related issue. The girl has been deported from a Western country and wants to go back under another name. She was concerned that with the Biometric passport, that will be difficult as her last passport was biometric one. The guy told her not to worry. He made a phone call and in 10mins, they were joined by a guy who from the discussion appears to be an Immigration Officer.
The new guy said he will charge N85,000 for his services. He offered to make sure all her previously collected biometrics are deleted from the central immigration computer. This will allow her to apply for a new passport under a new name as her biometric will not be flagged as duplication anymore. They agreed the deal and the rest is history. Incidentally a few weeks later I was at the Ikoyi office to renew my own Passport. And guess who I saw in one of the offices; our Immigration fixer. So I went to him and pretended I needed the same service and that I was recommended by a friend (I used the name of this lady in the Restaurant as I heard her called).
The guy (now less suspicious of me) said he is happy to do it, but the price has gone up to N90,000 as he needed to settle one more person now. I left saying I will get back to him after collecting his number. I was shocked that Biometric data can be easily manipulated like this in Nigeria for a fee. Imagine someone seeking biometric information of some celebrity or ‘Big Man’ paying staff to obtain it and using it for all manner of illegal activity or even to frame an individual. Or even assume the identity of such a person overseas. The possibilities are endless.
Some will say that these biometric will be protected and guarded with the best protection available. Even if this is the case; why duplicate that protection in many places at different agencies, and at what cost to the public purse? If such information gets stolen in the West with all the protection in place; how difficult do you think it will be for it to happen in Nigeria?
I do not want to be the prophet of doom here; but foresight demands that we anticipate the potential problems or weaknesses in our decisions before they materialise. We need to think several steps ahead as a nation and ask why six or several agencies of the state must each hold a primary database of our Biometric information. Why? Why not have ONE single database, to which more information will be added incrementally and all others will simply interrogate it for verification. So in the spirit of constructive criticism; I will recommend the following steps to bring the nation back from a catastrophic precipice of Biometric Armageddon.
What needs to happen now:
- The Federal government should create (if it does not already exist) a central database governing and management agency.
- This agency should mop up all existing biometric database and cleanse the data of duplicates and then keep ownership of them (with world class security) as the central repository of biometrics of Nigerians.
- All other agencies of government must be prohibited by law to store biometrics of Nigerians.
- Any agency of the state that need to verify people’s identity, must be made to interrogate the Central Database for confirmation; rather than store its own fresh data.
- If an individual does not exist on the Central Biometric register; they should be made to go register with that central agency first. Then they will come back to the secondary agency to verify via step 4 process above.
This way, the Biometrics will only exist in one place and hopefully adequately protected. It is not too late to stop this mess going on in our nation. The CBN must stop its Biometric collection exercise as that is not the job of a central bank. The federal government should act of the foregoing recommendations to allow government agencies with a genuine need for Biometric identification to linkup with the central database for verification purpose.
Many of the things we seek to do as a nation are things other nations have done for decades. We must learn from their mistakes rather than behave as though we are doing something not known to man. We need to build foresight into our planning as a nation and create future-proof policies that would have built-in risk mitigation measures to safeguard our people.
Following best practice as stated above will not only safeguard the integrity of the Biometric data; but it will also safe the nation lots of money in duplicated efforts. This we can all support regardless of our politics for the sake of our future.