How Zimbabwe's biometric ID scheme — and China’s AI aspirations — threw a wrench in elections

7 February 2020

Digital Content

Uganda

In July 2018, Zimbabweans went to the polls for the first time since the ousting of long-time (now deceased) leader Robert Mugabe, who had held power for nearly 30 years. This may have been promising from an outsider's perspective, but the heavily contested elections did not inspire confidence in Zimbabwean voters.

Weeks after polling day, when results had not yet been released, hundreds of people took to the streets of the capital Harare to protest the delays, with many fearing that the Zimbabwean Electoral Commission (ZEC) had rigged the results in favor of then-Vice President Emerson Mnangagwa, who took office shortly after Mugabe’s ouster.

But vicious party politics were not the only reason Zimbabweans distrusted the results of this particular election. In the months leading up to the vote, something else had been happening, something new: The government had begun to collect citizens’ biometric data, as part of the voter registration process.

In previous elections, citizens could visit any polling station and vote just by showing their conventional ID cards, which contained their name, ID number, date and place of birth and date of issue. After voting, one's finger would be smeared with indelible ink to avoid double voting. Now, citizens suddenly had to submit their photos, fingerprints, national identity numbers and home addresses into one integrated and digitized system. If they did not do this, they were told, they might be barred from voting. This increased public fears of monitoring and intimidation, already a common theme for elections in Zimbabwe.

The system was touted both by ruling party and opposition voices as a strong guard against “ghost” voters and other types of election fraud. But its underlying technology was not built with these issues in mind. Nor was it built in Zimbabwe.

China’s ‘AI foray’ into southern Africa

The government of Zimbabwe signed a strategic partnership with CloudWalk Technology, a Chinese company that has become a leader in the field of facial recognition, in March 2018. The objective of the partnership was to commence a large-scale facial recognition program in Zimbabwe, which government officials said would be used to preserve “law and order,” and then expanded to other public sector programs. Read the full article on Global Voices Online here.