Halt dangerous new biometric register

President Akufo-Addo with the EC Chair, Mrs Jean Mensa

Ghana is going into a crucial election in December this year. The stakes are so high that any material miscalculation will have dire consequences for the citizenry.

Already the electioneering calendar has been distorted by artificial and natural phenomena; the artificial being the Electoral Commission’s stubbornness in considering wise counsel and choosing debilitating paths.

The result already is the failed attempt to commence compilation of a new biometric voters register from 18th April, 2020. Coupled with the natural occurrence of a pandemic, it will be unsound to cling onto obstinacy at the expense of the democracy we all ascribe to.

The world is undergoing tremendous changes owing to the impact of Covid19 and people of all walks of life and faith have not been spared. Our schools, our places of work and even our places of worship have been disrupted by measures that have been put in place to contain the spread and to manage this disease. Suspension of religious activities that affect congregations is unprecedented in our time and has taken us to an uncharted territory.

There is currently no vaccine or antiviral drugs to fight the corona virus. In the absence of a vaccine or effective antiviral drugs, hand hygiene is a mainstay of efforts to prevent the spread of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus that causes COVID-19.

The Jean Mensa-led Electoral Commission of Ghana intends to compile a new biometric voter’s register for election 2020, despite the fact that Ghana’s covid-19 infections toll currently stands at over 4,236 as we write.

This represents an astronomical leapfrogging in new cases from 3,091 to 4,236 in less than 48 hours. According to the Electoral Commission, they have secured enough Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) for use as a precautionary measure during the compilation process. These are just for the insignificant number of registration officers compared to the millions they will serve. This calls for careful scrutiny with regards to the threats and risks of infection involved in such a process.

First and foremost, people who have the infection may show few, if any, symptoms, but still be able to transmit the virus. The virus spreads via droplets in the air or on commonly used surfaces, such as door handles et cetera. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) washing the hands thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds is a highly effective way to defend against harmful bacteria and viruses. This is one of the measures the Electoral Commission will roll out in such a nationwide exercise.

However, this is no guarantee that hand washing will prevent one from contracting the virus and this is backed by scientific research. Again, in such an exercise, many people will be using their bare hands to touch the surface of the water tap further increasing the risk of spread. Meanwhile, these groups of people who will go through the registration process may be exposed to infection from a variety of sources throughout the course of each day.

In addition, there will be availability of alcohol-based hand sanitizers for people to sanitize their hands before going through the registration process. Alcohol based hand sanitizers provide a quick, simple alternative. However, there has been a lack of hard evidence that they are effective against SARS-CoV-2, in other words, the use of an alcohol hand sanitizer is no guarantee to avoiding the contraction of Covid19. This is backed by data and science.

Let us be forewarned of the outbreak of the covid-19 in a factory at Kpone in the Greater Accra region where five hundred and thirty-three (533) workers were infected happened in the presence of these same protocols prescribed to be used by the EC being followed in that factory!

It is critical that the biometric fingerprint recognition machines which will form the core of the registration exercise are considered seriously. Fingerprint recognition is a secure and convenient technology that has become common and widespread, not only in smartphones, but in our everyday lives as well. However, the recent global outbreak of COVID-19 is raising questions about how safe using fingerprint authentication really is as touching the sensors can potentially spread viruses.

There are three parts to the concerns over the safety of fingerprint recognition technology:

1. Can we first of all say fingerprint recognition is safe against covid-19? The answer is obviously no.

2. How much risk does fingerprint recognition entail? The answer is a high risk is involved.

3. How should we perceive the use value of the technology? Human lives matter more.

A short elaboration of the answers to the questions above: It’s difficult to claim that fingerprint recognition sensors are completely safe from spreading viruses.

Reports say that the virus can survive anywhere between hours to days, depending on the type of surface it lands on. Fingerprint recognition requires the users to touch the sensor.

The contamination level of this surface is as high as that of door handles according to a study. This indicates that fingerprint recognition sensors can act as a medium to pass the virus via contact just the same as any other commonly touched surfaces. We note another study suggests that disinfecting sensor surfaces with alcohol could significantly lower the possibility of virus transmission, but cannot completely eliminate the risk of contracting the virus.

Businesses in India and some other parts of the world are being told to suspend contact-based biometric time and attendance systems to prevent the spread of covid-19. State and local governments in such countries have issued a series of protocols, including a halt to fingerprint employee-tracking systems, possibly replaced with a card-based system or facial recognition, after a tech worker in Hyderabad tested positive for the virus in India.

Summarily, the biometric fingerprint recognition machine which will be used in the compilation of a new voter’s register presents a huge risks of infection for users. The machine will seriously spread the corona virus and the risk of spread is very significant especially, when the process will involve huge numbers. We are considering a current voter population of over 14 million citizens, which can reasonably be expected to be close to 15 million registered voters should the exercise be completed without the obviously intended machinations conceived to disenfranchise a certain class of potential and currently registered voters who are automatically expected to qualify for the new voter’s ID.

Same process will involve thousands of voters in almost every polling station, with some polling stations expected to register at least 500 people a day. 500 or more people queuing to register by putting their fingers on the biometric machines! The limited time and pressure we envisage in this adventure presents ominous spectacles in consequence. As already alluded to above, there exist no safe practical means for the Electoral Commission of Ghana to embark on a new voter’s registration exercise in the current circumstances. Such an action will seriously expose many innocent people to contracting the corona virus, thereby endangering the lives of those people.

The Commission must resist every temptation and compulsion to compile a new voter’s register at this time of Ghana’s corona virus situation. If they insist on compiling a new voter’s register, there are likely to be ghosts voting from the grave in December, 2020. Citizens must boycott the process, as their lives are more precious than holding a mere voter’s ID card.

The clergy, chiefs, opinion leaders and civil society organizations must join hands in restraining the Electoral Commission from compiling a new voter’s register, as it will represent a journey to mass burials of unimaginable proportions. The current register which produced the current President could not have developed so serious defects since the appointment of Jean Mensa and Bossman Asare that it cannot produce the next president for the republic. There is no time to even contemplate such an elaborate exercise as to guarantee we will not end up with a worse register than we make the current one look.

Democracy is about the survival of the people, not their demise. Any effort to nurture its growth must not end in the death of the demos. Democracy without the demos is cracy-crazy! Let us preserve the nation.

By Assibid Dauda | assibiddauda@gmail.com

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