Biometric System Would Do More Harm Than Good?

By Syed Zahar. Malaysian Digest  

This whole fuss over the final decision on whether to use the biometric system or indelible ink reminds me of an old tale about the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Russian Federal Space Agency (RESA).

As the story goes, during the height of the space race in the 1960s, NASA scientists realized that pens could not function in space since there’s no gravity to make the ink flow down to the ball of the pen. They needed to figure out another way for the astronauts to write things down. So they spent years and millions of taxpayer dollars to develop a pen that could put ink to paper in a weightless environment. Meanwhile, their crafty Soviet counterparts at RESA simply equipped their cosmonauts with pencils.

Though this story is just a myth (but a space pen was really invented by a US company which patented it in 1965) it carries a message of simplicity and thrift – not to mention a failure of common sense in a bureaucracy. So why implement the complicated and expensive biometric voting system when a much simpler and cheaper indelible ink would do the trick?
Biometric System vs Indelible Ink

Many Malaysians, especially the opposition-leaning rakyat had sensed that something mischievous was going on when Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak announced recently that biometric system will be used in the coming parliamentary election. It took no time for Pakatan Rakyat to voice out against the idea saying it’s a sham as, according to them, the biometric voting system can be manipulated by the Election Commission (EC). They also feel that it’s too costly since the EC will need to have thumbprint readers in every stream and every polling station.

Meanwhile, EC chairman Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Mohd Yusof yesterday said the committee is seriously considering the use of indelible ink. Then he also said in a typical flip-flop manner that they might decide on using indelible ink as well as the biometric system or just biometrics entirely. Defending the biometric system, Abdul Aziz said the decision will put an end to allegations of “phantom voters”. He said phantom voters will no longer exist in the electoral lists once the biometric system is used to verify registered voters. He also urged people to have faith in the biometric system by pointing out that the system is currently used by the Home Ministry, national anti-drugs agency, the Immigration and the police.

Abdul Aziz’s announcement was confusing, unconvincing, inconsistent and rather blindsided to say the least. For one, the EC first agreed to use indelible ink in 2008 only to change its mind at the last minute. The EC had bought RM2.9 million worth of ink from Thailand but at the eleventh hour, it decided not to use it due to “security reasons”. Then, following the Bersih 2.0 episode, the EC denounced indelible ink saying that it’s unfeasible while endorsing the biometric system, only to make yet another U-turn later on.

Meanwhile, in response to the widespread use of biometrics in various authorities, apparently, there are already reports on a certain glitch to biometric data recently. On Aug 11, news came out on the tampering of 600 biometric equipments that were used to record the data of foreign workers in the ongoing amnesty program. According to the Home Ministry, the tampering had caused damage to the biometric system and, as a result, the data of the foreigners could not be uploaded to the Immigration Department’s main server. This proved that the biometric system does have flaws where it could be manipulated. 

Inconsistencies: Now the EC chief is contradicting his deputy. He said that in 2008, even when word came about that someone was illegally bringing in indelible ink from Thailand, it wouldn’t have mattered

Trust More of An Issue Than Efficient Technology

If the idea to use the biometric system goes through we will be the first to implement the system for voting, unless another country beats us to it. Ghana, which have also been disputing over the same issue, would be the other country that will enforce the biometric voting system in their next election in 2012.