The state funded Danish Aid Agency (DANIDA) has recently involved itself in a joint venture to sell sophisticated biometric identification technology to the Egyptian Ministry of Communication. NGOs like Freedom House express concerns that the new technology lacks oversight and lends itself to privacy violations.
Since 2007, The Danish Aid Agency (DANIDA) has supported a joint project between the Danish IT company Quard Technology and the Egyptian company Softlock with a total sum of 2.2 million DKK (US$ 400,000), with the aim of creating a biometric smart card enabling administrators to increase IT-security in public and private offices. Previously a leading supplier of software protection services, Softlock now finds itself entering the booming industry of biometric identification. Danish Quard identifies Softlock as the ideal partner because of its expansive retail network which stretches across the entire Middle East, including countries such as Saudi Arabia, Morrocco, Syria and the Gulf States.
But NGOs like Freedom House question the consequences for civil rights and privacy in Egypt which will result from the introduction of the biometric technology. Internet Director Robert Guerra of Freedom House states: “It could be used for surveillance. It really depends on the implementation – that is, how the biometric data is stored on the smart card, how it is compared, and what logging takes place.” Guerra finds it disturbing that the biometric technology is exported without any prior examination: “Danida should at least ensure that the technology cannot be abused when they engage in exports to countries like Egypt, where free speech is under pressure“.
Director of Softlock, Magdy Sharawy, envisions opportunities for expanding the biometric technology throughout the Middle East. He states that the Egyptian Ministry of Communications is committed to using biometric technology and that his company is well-positioned to become the sole provider: “With this technology, we are the only providers who can satisfy the Egyptian Government's high demands, as the ‘Law on Digital Signature’ makes biometric ID cards mandatory within the public service“. Sharawy estimates that within the following pilot period of two years, Softlock will be able to sell 100-200,000 biometric ID cards to the Ministry of Communications alone.
Many questions remain however about security details such as encryption. While the card apparently encrypts fingerprints, Sharawy admits that the ID-card remains compatible with logging technology and that there appears to be no technical obstacles for monitoring users: “We can easily design a program for the ID-card which enables surveillance of user's Internet activities or conversations on Skype, but right now we are just trying to keep up with the high demand on the biometric ID cards alone.“
Together, Quard and Softlock are currently in the process of deciding how to mass produce the ID cards in China. Sharawy describes mass production as necessary for satisfying the increasing demand for biometric technology in the region: “We are struggling with a massive demand from countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf States“.
The Danish Director of Quard, Uffe Clemmensen, flatly rejects that their technology can lead to increased surveillance of citizens in Egypt: “You can not oppress people with our technology. The only thing you can use our technology for is to find out who is logging in“. Clemmensen rejects ethical restrictions on export. He instead emphasizes that the company's large holding of market-share in the Middle East proves that the project has been responsible. Sharawy likewise rejects imposing ethical requirements for the sale of the technology. “This is business. We sell to those who are interested. If I was approached by Iran, I would sell to them,” he states.
While that may be an acceptable position for private business practitioners, Carsten Bondersholt, project coordinator at the Danish Embassy in Cairo, reminds that DANIDA's publicly funded financial support is exclusively granted on the basis of ‘harmless’ development security solutions. In light of the criticism, Uffe Clemmensen, Ulla Tørnæs (Danish Mister of Development), and DANIDA, all expressed openess to the possibility of investigating Quard's technology and the possible impact on human rights in Egypt. The issue has additionally been raised by opposition parties in the Danish Parliament, but no concrete steps towards an investigation have yet been initiated.