Monday, August 8, 2011

Biometrics a practical solution?

Over the weekend, I attended a Polling and Counting Agents (PACA) briefing, and one of the questions raised was how to verify if someone was indeed a "Lee Ah Chong" if he looked like a "Mustafa"? I realised that the NRD and Immigration ensure the avoidance of mistaken identity by implementing a biometric system. Whenever I come home from overseas or when I go to the bank to open my account, the biometric reader is produced to get my thumbprint.

Actually it seems like a pretty good idea for the Electoral Commission (EC) to implement a biometric system at the next election to prevent voter fraud, double voting and phantom voters.The system would be able to identify the person immediately and it would be able to automatically update itself to ensure that the due process is followed.

However, if we think about the complexity of the proposed system, there are a coupling of glaring fundamental flaws. Placing allegations of vote and system rigging aside, let us look logically as to the challenges that it would face during it's implementation.

1. Not everyone has a new IC.
It is well known that registered voters need not necessarily present their IC in order to vote. They can produce their passport, drivers license or any other approved documentation with their full name and IC number on it. However, in order for the biometric system to work, we need to have a new IC with a chip, or a passport in order for your thumbprint to be processed. In urban areas, let alone rural areas, there are many registered voters without new ICs which would then find it difficult to vote on polling day.

2. Biometrics in rural areas.
The logistics of setting up biometric systems in schools across the country is a task in itself. What more for long houses in the depths of Sarawak? How is the EC going to overcome this problem? It is well known that most don't have an Internet connection which is essential for the system to operate. Are we going to have one policy for the kampungs and another for the cities?

3. Server overload.
Yes, biometrics are used on a daily basis. The way it works is that the sensor is connected to a computer, which in turn is connected to a centralised server containing a database with all the identity information stored in it. The question is whether the system would be able to cope with a huge increase in traffic, especially when 11 million voters converge in a single day to cast their votes? Surely the system would experience overloads.

4. Computer Bugs and System failure.
Anyone who works in a company with a central server knows that problems will be experienced from time to time and any breakdown in the system could potentially paralyse the entire organisation. Similarly, what if such a problem were to occur on polling day? The consequences would be disastrous for the nation and our democracy.

What is the point of spending millions on a system which would only be used once every five years and subject the people and the EC to so many potential headaches? I look forward to a reply from the EC regarding these issues so we can derive an informed opinion on whether the system is justified in the interests of protecting our democracy.

When all is said and done, I believe that you cannot go wrong with good old, cheap indelible ink.

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