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10 Fingerprints: Data Overkill in Nigeria’s Voter Election Registration Process

By Wayan Vota on January 17, 2011

INEC-fingerprint-scanner.jpg
In the excitement leading up to April’s presidential election in Nigeria, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) may have gotten a little carried away with its mandate to have a clean and fair elections. In the INEC voter registration process, prospective registrants are required at scan all 10 of their fingerprints, one at a time, using a small livescan fingerprint reader.

1. Scan Quality

When the finger touches the flat scanner surface, the elastic skin deforms based on the quantity and direction of the pressure applied by the user. This introduces distortions, noise and inconsistencies in the captured fingerprint image, making each image different each time a single finger is placed on the sensor plate. Now add in finger surface conditions and the accuracy of the fingerprint capture device and its operators, and its remarkable that the INEC process records fingerprints at all.

Nigeria’s National Youth Service Corps, who are staffing the registration points, have resorted to constantly wiping fingers and scanners with methylated spirits (denatured alcohol), making sure the fingers of the registrant cover the face of the scanner completely, and holding the finger down for better contact.

2. Scan Quantity

Since scanning just one finger print is so troublesome, multiplying the scan variability out to all 10 fingerprints increases the error possibility and frustration level by 10x for everyone, including the famous. According to Daily Sun, it took 3 scanners, INEC officials, IT experts, and the state Resident Electoral Commissioner to register former president Olusegun Obasanjo.

But why scan all 10 fingers to begin with? Might that be data overkill? I think I have to agree with Akin Akintayo:

Whilst 10-fingers provide data high data uniqueness, the data variables are unnecessarily high for the mass of registrants. Someone got carried away with data quality and lost the context of throughput and processing. One finger is enough 10 fingers is madness raised to the power of insanity. I think the INEC Registration coordinators should recalibrate the system and issue new instructions for single thumbprint capture

Yes, data storage is cheap but the lengthy voter registration process could also discourage voters and be a subtle form of elections disenfranchisement. In this case, disenfranchisement that includes the ex-president of Nigeria and the current Senate president among countless thousands (millions?) of others.

3. Scan Use

So now that NIEC has all 10 fingerprints, of dodgy quality at best, how will it use the fingerprints during the elections? Will voters need to provide all 10 fingers to be scanned again to vote or just one? Wouldn’t the voter registration card with its photo be enough to guarantee only one vote per person? The card has its own unique identifiers that would be easier and faster to check on a hectic election day, and in counting only one vote per card, NIEC would achieve one vote per person.

So why would the Nigerian government be so keen on collecting 10 fingerprints? Could Akin Akintayo be right in his worry about alternate uses:

Generally, the 10 fingers are only captured for police documents or in this age of paranoia regarding terrorism at certain points of entry around the globe.

I hate to think that this voter registration exercise has been sold to the election commission as a dual-purpose function to be shared with the security agencies which for all intents and purposes can be very helpful to crime solving for but it should not have featured at all in the primary exercise of voter registration.

The issue of civil liberties probably has not gained enough traction as to the sensitivity of this kind of data, who would eventually have access to it, how it would be secured, if citizens have right of access to modify or delete their information and much more.

Right now, security is the first issue to worry about. All those digital fingerprint records at each voter registration station? They’re saved on portable hard drives.

Filed Under: Management
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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks and is the Digital Health Director at IntraHealth International. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of IntraHealth International or other ICTWorks sponsors.
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2 Comments to “10 Fingerprints: Data Overkill in Nigeria’s Voter Election Registration Process”

  1. dammy says:

    Its pretty amazing that with the whooping 84 billon naira plus invested into 2011 elections, its unthinkable having such machines and untrained users.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I do not care if you are a technology expert before people try to make comments please go back and look at the history of Nigeria in the past. During registration in the early 2000 i registered a couple of times with different names because then i was much yonger and the inec official then said i could do that. this a question raised by this article ” So now that NIEC has all 10 fingerprints, of dodgy quality at best, how will it use the fingerprints during the elections? Will voters need to provide all 10 fingers to be scanned again to vote or just one? ” the truth is that inec used the scanner to ensure that one person can not register twice with different name. therefore you can not vote with different names during the election i guess i have answered your question Wayan Vota. Do not think the American System and Nigerian system are the same they are not we still have a long way to go .