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Nelson Mandela was one of the first recipients of the new South African ID card today, when it was officially launched in Pretoria with the handing over of Madiba’s card to his daughter Zindi Mandela. President Jacob Zuma, archibishop emeritus Desmond Tutu and FW de Klerk were also among the first to receive their new documents.
The new cards will replace the old green book and contain an RFID chip from French technology firm Gemalto which contains biometric information such as a digital photo and fingerprints. The idea is that the new cards are hard to forge and use incredibly strong 2056bit encryption for verifying your details. The DHA reckons it will take eight years to replace the old documents fully, and will eventually be used for service delivery, RICA authentication and banking.
We feel that there’s been surprisingly little debate about the merits of ID cards, however. They’re a highly controversial subject in other parts of the world and were recently ditched in the UK due to the cost of implementation and privacy concerns. So to get some sort of conversation started, here’s a very quick precise of our personal feelings among the team.
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I have no problem with the ID cards themselves. I have a problem with the fact that I need to have a separate passport, driver’s license, firearm licences and ID card. If you’re going to perform an overhaul of the system then do it properly and integrate everything into one. Have One ID card that holds all of my data and I may consider switching to it. Right now it will probably take me 5 years to switch to a new card because I don’t have any incentive to do so.
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Deon du Plessis
First, an ID book. Now, an ID card with an RFID chip. What’s next, a microchip implanted in my bicep, or in the bit of flesh between my thumb and forefinger, because cards are too easy to lose or clone?
This card business is just a stepping stone to ever-worse draconian track-and-control measures that will strip away even more of my civil liberties, and create a future in which I am only “allowed” to do that which is approved by my government. No thanks.
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Personally, I don’t have issues with the new ID card system. As a young, black South African born in the 90s, I can’t relate to the apartheid system of passbooks that were imposed on my parents’ generation and the symbolism an ID in the form of a book carries for them. For me it’s not about ID cards being a sign of democracy and freedom, rather just a change. I find the book inconvenient, whereas a card is smaller and easier to carry. I do hope though that they are secure as government says they are because that’s my biggest concern.
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Christo van Gemert
Ignoring their potential role in a dystopian future, where watchdog governments track citizens, I think digital ID cards could be beneficial if implemented correctly.
Practical benefits are obvious: these things fit in your wallet. That’s more than can be said for the ungainly paper-based barcoded ID books. Since the RFID chips store digital information, which ties us to a database, ID cards could be used to store information about our health, driver’s licenses, and more.
There are security benefits as well. The RFID chips in the cards use encryption keys, making them difficult to fraudulently reproduce.
Then again, all of that relies on banks, government departments, and other businesses to have the proper equipment for reading RFID chips, rather than relying on visual identification. With the government saying it’ll take many years to phase out the old books, there’s no excuse for companies to adopt the tech in a hurry – nor any reason to get excited about the benefits, just yet.
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For me the scariest thing about the new ID cards is that we’re being told that somehow they represent new freedoms in South Africa. Perhaps it’s just my European background, but the idea of carrying identification documents is the very antithesis of being free, especially when you look at how much information can be created by the use of a digital card, and how quickly it can be accessed and searched – even if we trusted the government now to look after our data (and with the levels of corruption and easily bribable officials we know of, why should we) what happens in the future? South Africa, of all countries, should know the dangerous powers that large, oppressive governments can wield.
Let’s face it, if every parking guard, hotel receptionist, call centre operator and shop assistant who currently asks for your ID number were writing it down and entering it one large database, we’d be living in a police state that would make Stalin worry about personal privacy with the levels of surveillance it allowed. To me, the new ID card just makes that all the more possible.
What’s worse is that everyone talks about the levels of fraud and identity theft in South Africa that this new system is supposed to help fight (which would be a good thing) – but very few people are willing to go so far as to quantify that. Is it really that big a problem that we need such a hammer and nut solution to? Really?