In Malawi, the government has started the official registration of 8.4 million children. That decision should benefit young citizens, but also raises concerns about privacy and government surveillance.
As he queues to register his three children for the first time, taxi driver Michael Nyadani talks about the difficulties of living without official identity papers.
“When you enroll your children in school, they ask for a birth certificate or proof of their age,” says Nyadani. ‘And when one of my children disappeared a few years ago, I had to report it to the police. It was difficult because I didn’t have any kind of identification for them.’
Until recently, many Malawians simply did not declare the birth of a child. Nyadani itself was only issued an identity card in 2018, when the government began collecting biometric data from all adult residents and issuing them ID cards.
The Population Registration Act of 2010, which came into effect in practice in 2015, made it mandatory to register all births, deaths and marriages of citizens over the age of sixteen.
Before that, most Malawians used their electoral passport as an identification document. And to apply for a passport or driver’s license, they often received a letter from their village leader confirming their address and age.
But since 2017, when the Malawian government, with support from the United Nations Development Agency (UNDP) and the EU, began biometric registrations, more than nine million adults have been registered – about 90 percent of those eligible.
This venture, which aims to improve services and governance and promote economic and social inclusion, is part of the Digital Malawi project, which aims to link every citizen to a government database.
But a further commitment in October to also register around 8.4 million children under the age of 16 by 2023 has raised concerns about privacy and surveillance. Biometric data is even collected from newborns and a unique ID number is assigned.
The civil registry collects information such as name and date of birth, place of residence and parents’ names, as well as biometric data such as fingerprints and photographs.
Because while a data protection law is still being worked on for the country, biometric data is already being registered and identity documents are being issued, says Jimmy Kainja, Associate Professor of Media and Communication at the University of Malawi, who researches digital rights and privacy. .
“The problem is that the mandatory registration has taken place without robust data protection.”
“The problem is that mandatory registration has arisen without robust data protection in Malawi,” he says. “We do all this without any protection for the citizen.”
Malawi’s National Registry Office did not respond to requests for comment. The government generally downplays concerns about possible government surveillance and privacy.
At a meeting in September, Homeland Security Minister Jean Sendeza defended the registration because it allows government agencies to “easily track details of any Malawian.” He also said the registrations and biometric IDs were essential to prevent crimes against children.
Worldwide, an estimated one billion people do not have official ID, 40 percent of them in Africa. According to the World Bank, this significantly limits their access to healthcare, education and financial services.
More and more countries are therefore adopting digital ID systems, citing greater efficiency and fraud prevention. But the systems often exclude marginalized groups, such as the elderly or the homeless, and deny them essential services.
In Malawi, the national identity card has now become the only form of identification for many services, including banking, registering a SIM card, accessing social services and COVID-19 vaccinations.
According to UNICEF, which helps the government register children, an identity document makes millions of children in Malawi “visible” and helps prevent abuse.
“Identity proof is the first step in tackling issues such as child labour, child marriage and child trafficking,” said Bejoy Nambiar, health systems specialist at UNICEF Malawi.
Children without ID have difficulty enrolling in schools and accessing health care, he says. It is also difficult for the government to provide essential services without accurate and up-to-date figures. He believes that the fear of data being misused is exaggerated.
Malawi has a data protection law ready, but it is not clear when it might be enacted. The Act regulates the collection and processing of personal data to ensure that it is kept in a ‘safe, secure and lawful’ manner and is only used within the legal framework.
The bill requires prior consent for the processing of minors’ data and protects children’s privacy, including against possible abuse by persons who may illegally share, distribute or sell their personal data.
But data on ethnicity is also collected, says Kainja. This can violate children’s right to privacy and expose minority groups to targeted attacks.
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‘We just give away all this information about children to the government,’ says the teacher. “It can be a good thing if, for example, a disease breaks out, but it also opens up the possibility of government control.”
“Ethnic minorities are more easily attacked because all their information is available – including people with albinism, for example,” he says. “There is currently no legal framework to protect their data – the government should actually take these measures first.”
Michael, who can register his three children after a long wait, sees the advantages of the new system in particular. He says he is confident the government will protect their data.
This article was originally published by IPS partner Thomson Reuters News Foundation.