Haiti’s Biometric Elections: A High-Tech Experiment in Exclusion


Port-au-Prince, Haiti. A lot of people agree that the upcoming elections in Haiti – the first since Aristide and his government were expelled in the February 29, 2004 coup d’etat – are important.

Members of the international community who supported the coup agree: Canada’s special advisor to Haiti, Denis Coderre, has called them “a crossroads,” and “a historical turning point.” The Haitian business elite who orchestrated the coup – and who are referred to here without irony as “civil society” – also agree. They see the election as a process through which their people can consolidate power. And many Lavalas activists in both rural and urban parts of the country believe that now that the election is underway, it is a critical moment to demonstrate that they are still the party that represents the poor majority in this country.

But there is another reason this elections process is a significant one – and all the more so because almost no one seems to be talking about it. Haiti is about to experience its first biometric elections.

In order to vote, every Haitian over the age of eighteen must register for a new national identification card that will replace previous forms of identification. After the elections, the card will become the mandatory ID for all Haitians, linking them to government services and financial records.

Each new card includes both a digital photo and digital fingerprints. At this point, about 2,9 million voters of a possible 4 million have gone to register for their cards at registration offices set up around the country by the Conseil Électoral Provisoire (CEP), with substantial logistical support from the Organization of American States (OAS).

The question of whether or not biometric national ID cards are desirable has not been publicly debated in the Haitian press, by the interim government, or by Haitian society at large. Most discussion on the registration process has focused on its accessibility to the rural and urban poor. One registration office serves all of Cité Soley, and it is positioned on the outskirts of the area. Peasants in some areas of the country have to walk for four or five hours in order just to reach the registration centers. They will have to make the trip again in order to pick up the card once it is ready.

No one seems to be concerned or particularly aware of the ramifications – threats to privacy, government and intergovernmental surveillance – that accompany biometric identification. People look amused when I relate how a biometric national ID card for Canadians was rejected by parliament in 2003 after much outcry about citizens’ right to privacy. The card was proposed by Denis Coderre, Canada’s immigration minister at the time, who cited its importance for national security in the wake of 9/11. Immigration Canada ended up instituting a mandatory national ID card only for immigrants with permanent resident status. The card has not yet become biometric, though it carries a digitized strip that contains a range of information that helps the Canadian government track permanent residents.

Patrick Féquiere is a member of the CEP, the temporary administrative body that decided to use this election process to institute national biometric identification. He sees the new system as a victory for a country where 450,000 people – primarily the rural poor–are effectively disenfranchised because they do not have any form of state identification at all. These people will finally “exist in the eyes of the state.”

It makes sense that in a post-coup elections context characterized by massive unemployment, paramilitary violence and reorganization, police impunity, social violence, and heavy international intervention at all levels of governance, a national debate over biometrics is low on Haiti’s list of priorities.

But in spite of the rhetoric of inclusion with which the cards are being promoted, the biometric IDs threaten to inaugurate a new and high-tech form of national and hemispheric exclusion for many Haitians.

Biometric identification relies on a computer-driven system that collects unique biological identifiers like fingerprints, retina scans, or digital photos, digitizes them, and stores them in a central database. Each time you present your ID, the computer system checks the identifying data against that which is contained in the database under your name. Other information, such as your date of birth, address, medical history, credit rating, political history, or information collected through surveillance agencies, can also be collected in the database and linked to your identifiers. The information can be shared between governments, which are able cross-reference the data held in different country databases, used to track people entering their country, and to flag people they consider “security risks” or potential terrorists.

A biometric identification system is supposed to make identification more secure by making identity theft – the fraudulent use of someone else’s identification to vote, access social services, or cross borders – more difficult.

Critics of such systems cite concerns about the privacy and security of the data collected, and its possible uses by the state to profile, track, and exclude individuals or groups based on their identifiers.

Féquiere claims that the Haitian government does not plan to open its databases to other countries in the hemisphere. But he does say that post-9/11 security considerations influenced the CEP’s choice of a high-tech registration system. Moreover, he foresees that when Haitians travel to the U.S., their biometric ID will be checked against the U.S.’s own biometric registries. (Submitting to digitalized fingerprinting is currently the condition of most foreigners’ entry to the U.S.)

Used in this way, biometric identification on a mandatory identification card could prove dangerous because of the efficiency with which it institutionalizes and exacerbates the double standards and exclusions that stratify not only Haitian society but the globe. Haiti is a country in which people fighting to survive in the poorest slums are profiled as terrorist chimère, as ex-military commanders responsible for massacres like Jodel Chamblain move about freely. It is also a trafficking port through which much cocaine enters the United States. As in Colombia, the rhetoric of a war against drugs is easily employed to profile, terrorize and kill poor people and progressive activists, while notorious members of the cartels, like Guy Philippe, are allowed to run for the presidency – with the silent blessing of international “protectors” like Canada and the United States.

Moreover, in a global political context in which people like Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen, are already being deported to torture in Syria when they are racially profiled and labeled “terrorist” on a U.S. Flight Watch list, the potential dangers of hemispheric biometric profiling are high.

Haiti’s ID cards are being manufactured and digitized out of country, by the Mexican branch of Digimarc, an Oregon-based company that is on the International Foundation for Elections Systems list of suppliers. (IFES works with such organizations as USAID, the National Democratic Institute, and Elections Canada, to provide “targeted technical assistance to strengthen transitional democracies.”) Digimarc signed the 1.5 million dollar contract with the OAS, and the company’s systems are used throughout the hemisphere. It has produced or is producing biometric voter registration cards for a number of Latin American countries, including Colombia, Honduras, Brazil, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. Additionally, it has created biometric drivers licensing systems for thirty-two states in the U.S.

The collaboration of IFES, Digimarc, and the OAS suggest that “democracy strengthening” programs in countries like Haiti are being used to facilitate the implementation of an integrated hemispheric tracking and surveillance program

What better way to integrate an entire country into a biometric surveillance program than to sponsor a coup and take advantage of the silence as political repression, human rights abuses, falling revenues and fear of perpetual political instability preoccupy those who might question a process?

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