Home Affairs modernised: Data intelligence with far reaching effects

2016-05-19 07:38 - Selene Brophy
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Cape Town –  As the world speeds towards digitisation, across every sphere, the modernisation of Home Affairs has been a welcomed changed for a department often associated with long queues and frustrating waiting period.

The Minister of Home Affairs Malusi Gigaba however, affirmed that the DHA is looking to expand the roll-out of its modernisation strategy, stating that most South Africans fail to realise the DHA is so much more than just an office that issues documents. 

Speaking at a Cape Town Press Club breakfast briefing, Gigaba says changing this perception forms part of implementing its broad Modernisation Programme, through the replacement of outdated, fragmented and paper-based systems with an integrated and digital National Identity System (NIS). Added to this the DHA is planning "higher-level training of staff in terms of appropriate values, behaviour and specialist competencies, as well as creating a high-security, an uninterruptible environment within which the people, systems and infrastructure of the DHA can be protected".

Extending pilot age-group of online applications

Gigaba confirmed that its eHomeAffairs online platform launched on 7 April for citizens in the targeted group 30 to 35-years old, allowing them to  apply for documents online from the comfort of their homes or offices via the #eHomeAffairs portal securely would be extended to 25 to 40-year age group.

"From Monday, 23 May 2016, we will begin to accept applications from those clients who fall within the 25 to 40 age group. This will add impetus to our resolve of replacing the green ID book with the Smart ID card. So far, we have issued over four million Smart ID cards,"  says Gigaba.

The department had seen an estimated 10 000 applications since the April launch and had expected a bigger uptake, with final figures set to be released next week. The focus for the online pilot remains in Gauteng and Century City in the Western Cape for the moment, with Gigaba saying the department wants to ensure that it is rolled out efficiently as it plans to bring on more banks in other areas. 

Re-imagining Home Affairs

According to the minister, there are ”many things being tested” as part of Re-imagining Home Affairs - a “modernized department that provides access to quality services, convenience and without having individuals needing to set foot in DHA offices”. 

These include the aim of using mobile biometric units as opposed to the limitations of fixed units, enabling the department to do applications at schools, says Gigaba.

Further to this, he stated that the extent of being able to properly and securely register South Africans at birth, and having a digital biometric database would empower the government in a number of areas. 

Gigaba says, “Imagine if we are able to get all babies born in South Africa registered at birth within the 30-day time frame, this would enable the department of education to plan properly, to forecast capacity for new learners better, with the data further enabling it to forecast capacity for higher learning".

Gigaba said a solid and secure Biometric Data system and National Population Register would allow the state to "evaluate, monitor and implement better". 

Looking at the added measures in reducing queues and simplifying the application process, over and above the eHomeAffairs online system, the DHA was considering using mobile kiosks. But this would specifically target re-applications since the applicants secure biometric application information should already be in place. While two kiosks are currently being tested, the project was at a tentative phase, according to Gigaba.

The minister pointed out that South Africans are able to complete their tax returns in the comfort of their home, asking why this could not be the same for reapplications, stating that the necessary functionality was in place. 

But for Home Affairs, assessing its accessibility in comparison to other departments doesn’t stop there as Gigaba says strategies around the department’s modernisation programme extend beyond partnering with banks. 

Convergence of data intelligence

Further feeding into its four critical purposes made up of "improved and heightened security, administration, and governance improvement , service delivery and economic development in line with the NDP" - Gigaba envisages that its modernisation process will play an integral role in job creation and new growth in SMMEs.

It is really hard not to get the impression that Gigaba sees the Department of Home Affairs as a sort of future central intelligence agency of biometric data. It would enable convergence of systems with the necessary departments, at various security levels, to facilitate ease of access and better operations related to “making it easier for South Africans to go about their daily lives”, as the minister puts it. 

While the roll out of the eHome Affair is happening, with an extension on the cards with other private sector institutions, Gigaba cited examples of how the department of transport’s traffic department could be equipped with handheld fingerprint readers that would enable it to be more efficient for monitoring offenders as well as mean drivers wouldn't have the cost or need to carry drivers license - It could all be incorporated into the Smartcard ID.

Biometrics for the free movement of Africans

But this convergence or sharing of Biometric  is also being strategised beyond SA’s borders as the minister highlighted the sharing of biometric information with neighbours. This would allow it to better facilitate movement between borders, identify low-risk individuals and those who should not be allowed into the country, citing recent progress made with the Lesotho Special Permit as well as the 10-year bilateral agreement reached in Kenya, with all African business and academic travellers being allowed a multiple entry visa, valid for 10-years.

“We have undertaken to dedicate specific focus to the management of our immigration services, precisely because we believe part of our responsibility is rooted in the National Development Plan, in particular our role in enabling economic development and contributing to national security.”

Gigaba said a Final Draft of the Green Paper on Migration has been finalized, with key policy recommendations seeking to improve economic capabilities for the strategically by way of retaining international students in the country post-graduation to overcome the non-recognition of qualifications, which is one of the critical challenges associated with leveraging skilled foreign nationals. 

“Consultations with relevant key stakeholders in this aspect are ongoing,” says Gigaba

Access to a powerful intelligence asset?

So re-imagining the department of home affairs from its legacy of low-skilled, paper-intensive environment that was process and queue wracked, then leads to the realisation that if the department is successful in digitising its systems entirely by 2018, with National Treasury having already committed more than a billion rand in earmarked funds to support it, it is in the process of creating a very powerful national asset  – with far-reaching capacity both for good and bad.

The risks and ownership of Biometric data was however raised and whether further down the line it would require SA to consider new permission laws in order to protect the information from being abused or shared without the citizen's consent?

Gigaba said that in all likelihood it would have to be considered but stressed the process the department was involved in, in training its staff went beyond just front office improvements, and building a secure national population register. 

“Nobody can have full access, no other government department besides the DHA. If we were asked by the police to identify a set of fingerprints we would take the request and verify it for them. In the case of the traffic department, we would give limited access to only the info they needed to know. 

"It will always be limited access and well contained. We will never give full access to anybody to the national population register."

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