eID cards in SA a bad idea: Doctorow, Stallman

Activists Cory Doctorow and Richard Stallman have warned against the implementation of South Africa’s biometric electronic ID cards

By - September 12, 2013
Smart ID card

Liberal copyright activist Cory Doctorow and free software activist Richard Stallman have both warned against South Africa’s recently launched electronic identity (eID) card.

The new card will replace South Africa’s ageing national identity book, and is supplied by Netherlands-based Gemalto.

In a press release announcing the new card, Gemalto said that secure embedded software will protect the holder’s image and biometric data within the eID.

The issues Doctorow and Stallman raised are not with the security of the cards themselves, but centre around the availability of people’s private data.

Cory Doctorow at iWeek 2013

Cory Doctorow

Doctorow, who is also a well-known science fiction author and blogger, said that there are lots of questionable elements to biometrics cards, with the primary problem being that biometric data leaks all over the place.

Whether fingerprints, palm prints, your retina, or your DNA (by shedding hair, for example), biometrics data is not secret, Doctorow said. “Your fingerprints are all over this room.”

A further problem with biometric identifiers is that you can’t revoke them and they are easy to clone, Doctorow said.

All these problems combine to make biometrics bad authentication tokens, which Doctorow suggested could make for a solid technical argument for activists to use against the eIDs.

Richard Stallman at Software Freedom Day South Africa 2013

Richard Stallman at Software Freedom Day South Africa 2013

Stallman, who is the founder of the Free Software Foundation and lead developer on the GNU project, told MyBroadband in an interview that he has a fundamental problem with national identification programmes in general.

The fact that it is linked to an electronic, biometric system just makes it worse, Stallman said.

“It is very, very dangerous to have national ID cards,” Stallman said.

Stallman explained that such systems tend to be used as a universal identification and access token. This lets governments not only track people’s movements, but also makes it easier for them to see how people are connected.

According to Stallman, this information could be used by the people in power to, among other things, discover pockets of political challenge and squash them before they can gain momentum.

Stallman said that if a movement to protest these new identity cards hasn’t been started yet, one should be formed.

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