Editor's Note: This article is part of a series on digital identification systems, produced in association The Engine Room. Visit the digital identification microsite to read a full research report on this global trend and case studies on five countries that have implemented digital identification systems, including Zimbabwe.
In July 2018, Zimbabweans went to the polls for the first time since the overthrow of the now disappeared leader Robert Mugabe, who was in power for almost 30 years. This can be promising from an outside perspective, but the highly contested elections did not inspire confidence in Zimbabwean voters.
Weeks after the elections, when the results had not yet been released, hundreds of people took to the streets of the capital, Harare, to protest the delay. Many feared that the Zimbabwean Election Commission had manipulated the results in favor of then Vice President Emerson Mnangagwa, who took office shortly after the overthrow of Mugabe.
But bad party politics was not the only reason that made Zimbabweans distrust the results of this particular election. In the months before the election, something new was happening: the Government had begun to collect biometric data from citizens, as part of the voter registration process.
In previous elections, citizens could visit any polling place and vote by simply showing their conventional identification card, which contains their name, date and place of birth and date of issue. After the vote, the dice should be stained with ink to avoid double voting. Now, citizens had to send a photo, fingerprints, national identity numbers and home address to an integrated and digitized system. They were told that if they did not, they could be prevented from voting. This raised the fears of the surveillance and intimidation public, which are already common for the elections in Zimbabwe.
The ruling party and opposition voices announced the system as strong protection against “ghost” voters and other electoral frauds. But its underlying technology was not elaborated with those cunning in mind. Nor was it made in Zimbabwe.
‘China's artificial intelligence incursion’ in South Africa
The Government of Zimbabwe signed a strategic partnership with CloudWalk Technology, a leading Chinese company in the field of facial recognition in March 2018. The goal of the society was to start a large-scale facial recognition program in Zimbabwe, which government officials said It would be used to preserve “public order,” and then expanded to other public sector programs.
Chris Mutsvangwa, special advisor to President Mnangagwa and former ambassador of Zimbabu in China) told The Herald:
An ordinary Zimbabwean probably won't believe that you can buy your groceries or pay your electricity bill by scanning your face, but this is where this technology is taking us… as government, we are happy because we are moving with the rest of the world .
An ordinary Zimbabwean probably does not believe that you can buy food or pay electric bills with a facial scan, but this technology is taking us there … as a Government, we are happy because we move with the rest of the world.
As part of the Chinese Government's Belt and Silk Road Initiative, this agreement made Zimbabwe one of the first countries in South Africa to adopt this technology.
The relationship between the two countries is not new – with hundreds of millions of dollars invested in various sectors of Zimbabwe's complicated economy, China has a strong interest in Zimbabwe's political affairs. Chinese President Xi Jinping has frequently expressed his desire to spread China's communist leadership style to political parties around the world and has found acceptance in the ruling party of Zimbabwe, the African National Union of Zimbabwe-Patriotic Front.
China is willing to produce the best artificial intelligence in the world and Chinese companies are turning to Africa to accelerate the training of the diversity of their algorithms. Deploying the technology in a majority African population will allow CloudWalk to more clearly identify other ethnicities and potentially place the firm Chinese steps above American and European programmers.
CloudWalk uses 3D light facial software, which is supposedly better than other facial recognition programs for reading dark skin faces. The deal allows CloudWalk to train its algorithms with data taken from Zimbabwean citizens. The resulting information should help China develop the world's most inclusive and racially diversified facial recognition databases.
But at what cost to Zimbabwe's fragile democracy and to the privacy of Zimbabweans?
Digital identification and distrust in the 2018 elections
Opposition parties and civil society organizations have pressed for electoral reforms that included the adoption of biometric voter registration in the hope that the persistent problem of “ghost” voters in almost every election.
Although it may have helped eliminate the voter problem, the registration system also became a new tool of voter intimidation tool.
“Some citizens thought it was a way in which the Zimbabwean Electoral Commission tried to gather information about them and could be traced with their details of photos, addresses and fingerprints,” said Arthur Gwagwa, a digital rights activist and expert and cybersecurity.
In the end, despite all the preparation and data collection, the voting workers only requested the conventional identification cards of the electors. There was no review of photos or fingerprints of the voters as part of the voting process, and officials offered no explanation for this decision.
But the voting workers were not the only ones who asked for this information. The day after the vote, the ruling party agents initiated a door-to-door campaign to register the serial numbers of the biometric voter registration. A community advocacy group reported that the ruling party agents had instructed some voters to send their serial numbers and their registration stubs with their identification numbers – so that the ruling party could confirm who they had voted for.
Dhewa Mavhinga, director of South Africa of Human Rights Watch, told Global Voices that “in principle, the biometric voter registration system is safe, but as Zimbabwe's case showed, its integrity is compromised when they use it institutions like the Zimbabwean Election Commission, which had questionable independence. ”
Adolf Mavheneke, human rights activist and academic, told Global Voices:
The generality of Zimbabweans do not understand this (biometric) technology let alone those in rural areas. ZEC should take it upon themselves to educate Zimbabweans about this technology, how it works, and why the biometric choice.
The generality of Zimbabweans does not understand this (biometric) technology, except in rural areas. The Zimbabwean Election Commission should be responsible for instructing Zimbabweans about this technology, how it works and why the biometric option.
Arthur Gwagwa, an expert in cybersecurity, highlighted two cases of alleged interference with mass electoral data – one with data on the servers of the electoral commission and the other referred to as “registering” the security features of the ballot. This lack of transparency affected confidence in biometric technology but also tarnished the verifiability and audit of the technical functionality of the system.
What does the future have for Zimbabweans – and their data?
Zimbabwe does not have data protection laws, and the National Assembly had yet to discuss citizens' surveillance risks. In Zimbabwe, parliamentary officials imperiously dismiss these issues for reasons of national security.
Among the public and civil society groups, there is increasing concern that in fact, China is creating a future of technology-driven authoritarianism, in which technology transfers are deliberately used to limit the freedom of expression and development of democratic movements.
Adolf Mavheneke told Global Voices that electoral preparation and management in Zimbabwe have been associated with questionable trade agreements, such as the partnership with CloudWalk.
Not very long ago, as in the 2013 elections, it was a company called Nikuv from Israel which was involved in… (manipulating) the voter’s roll. So CloudWalk is no exception as its presence feeds a familiar narrative in the history of elections in Zimbabwe. The intention might have been good but one wonders why from China, a country which is not familiar with elections.
Not long ago, in the 2013 elections, there was a company called Nikuv of Israel, which was involved in … (manipulating) the voter registry. So CloudWalk is no exception, since its presence contributes to a family narrative in the history of elections in Zimbabwe. The intention may be good, but you have to wonder why with China, a country that is not familiar with elections.