Biometric data capture exercises should deliver value. And they should not be endless
In an effort to beat the deadline, many Nigerians last week besieged commercial banks across the nation to enrol for their Bank Verification Number (BVN). The biometric registration, an initiative of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and the Bankers’ Committee, was launched on February 14, 2014. By last week, precisely June 30, when the exercise ought to have been wrapped up, only some 15 million customers, barely half the 28.6 million adults said to have bank accounts in the country, had been enrolled. The project has been extended by four months to October 31.
The BVN is a unique identifier for each bank customer, making it easy to build and track the financial history of customer as well as address issues of money laundering, fraud and credit extension. It is also expected to boost financial inclusion since those who cannot read or write can open and access their bank accounts with their biometric information.
Undoubtedly, the BVN project is a good concept and we had wholeheartedly endorsed it as it provides banks and financial institutions access to reliable information on their customers, besides its use in detecting crimes. But many have attributed the low response to the latest exercise mainly to “fatigue” on biometric registrations. Many Nigerians are weary of doing the same thing many times over, particularly when the process is cumbersome and time-consuming aside the fact that the “gains” of the exercise are not easily available and verifiable.
Biometrics is based on individual characteristics of the subject and is, as such not necessary to be replicated or duplicated for authenticity. There are no two persons with the same set of finger prints, palm prints, or retina in the world. Since biometrics is therefore as individual as the DNA of a person, any pretensions about needing to capture same in a multiplicity of places for security efficiency and effectiveness falls flat on its face. Unfortunately, this has not been the case in Nigeria with biometrics data collection becoming one big racket.
In the last few years, Nigerians had been made to provide their biometrics, some of which clearly bordered on extortion. Several agencies of government including the National Population Commission, the Nigeria Immigration Service, the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC, the Independent National Electoral Commission and indeed the Nigeria Police had at different times asked Nigerians for their biometric data, and sometimes generating concerns among members of the public about the time, money and energy wasted.
The controversial move by the police to introduce Police Biometric Central Motor Registration (BCMR) certificate sometime ago, ostensibly in aid of efforts to curb crimes and terrorism, drew caustic criticisms from the public and had to be shelved. To worsen matters, especially in the case of the FRSC, those seeking to renew their driver’s licence are made to go through the same process again and again, making nonsense of the essence of their biometric data capture.
Perhaps one of the most comprehensive exercises was the compulsory registration of SIM cards and the collection of the biometric data of Nigerians, done at a huge cost to the nation. The pertinent question: Why can’t the banks tap into many of these multiple sources of databases?
Former President Goodluck Jonathan, in apparent repudiation of the unnecessary duplications, early 2014, ordered the stoppage of government agencies involved in multiple identity capturing exercises. He asked the agencies to align their data requirements with the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC), the body saddled with managing the national identity database for the nation. The directive was aimed at streamlining biometrically-linked databases and optimising scarce resources.
“Aside from being unwieldy,” said Jonathan, “the cost of operating multiple discordant databases and infrastructure is unsustainable. Government cannot afford the continued proliferation of data capture activities.”
While the BVN initiative, estimated initially to cost $50 million, is designed to complement the federal government identity management project, we feel the process should be made less cumbersome. It is even worrying that there seems no conscious attempt initially to incorporate Nigerians in the Diaspora into the project. With the extension of BVN deadline, it is important to address the issue of a seemingly endless data capture exercises in Nigeria.