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Uganda Set to Deploy DNA Recognition ‘Smart Digital’ Biometric ID

Neil Campbell
Neil lives in Canada and writes about society and politics.
Published: August 12, 2022
Uganda is set to collect DNA in an upcoming transition to a digital ID system.
A newly arrived refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) registers his fingerprints on a biometric machine in Kisoro, Uganda, June 7, 2022. Uganda announced it will upgrade its existing national ID system to one that utilizes DNA collection, fingerprinting, and iris scanning technology by 2024. (Image: BADRU KATUMBA/AFP via Getty Images)

The African nation of Uganda will upgrade its already existing national ID system to a Chinese Communist Party-style biometric system that utilizes DNA extraction for identity verification in 2024, according to reports.

In May, Kenyan news website Tuko reported that Minister of Foreign Affairs, General David Muhoozi, told Parliament that the existing scheme of National ID cards issued by the National Identification and Registration Authority would be phased out in favor of biometric digital ID.

Uganda first deployed national IDs in 2014, with an expiry date of 10 years.

Minister of Internal Affairs, Major General Kahinda Otafiire, called the upgraded biometric version a “more user-friendly national identity card,” according to Ugandan media outlet UBC.

An Aug. 9 article by the World Freedom Alliance states that the existing national ID is so pervasive that it is required “for opening a bank account, buying a mobile SIM card, getting a passport, or applying for a student loan.”


Muhoozi told Parliament, “The government seeks to take advantage of the strides in technology that will increase portability and verification to support global transactions. The exercise will improve accuracy and credibility of the register for planning and improved service delivery.”

The Minister added that going biometric was thought to also generate revenue for the administration because citizens could be charged for the service.

Tuko stated that Ugandans are “expected to have their DNA properties harvested by the government to be used in the development of new National Identity (ID) cards.”

April reporting by Ugandan media outlet The Independent stated that the country would produce its digital ID within its own borders at a new factory, but in partnership with Germany-based Verdios GmbH. 

The new facility was touted as creating “secure, world-class computerized driving licenses” while also managing “e-passports.”

In January of 2021, the government announced a “mass registration drive” to collect biometric data on citizens, touting it had already completed the first step of the program, issuing national IDs to 25.6 million citizens, amounting to 70.6 percent of the eligible 16+ population, reported industry website Biometric Update.

The outlet stated the drive would “expand the system to other forms of biometrics than fingerprints includ[ing] iris and face biometrics,” and that the government “intend[s] to work with civil society organizations and other partners” to complete their tasks.

Unpopular internally

Although the transformation of Ugandan society to a technocratic utopia is often glazed with optimism in both domestic and overseas media reports, not everyone is supportive of the affair.

An op-ed by Ugandan media outlet Monitor on May 17 urged the government to “go slow” on DNA collection.

“The move to harvest DNA samples, therefore, raises more questions than answers. Why now?” they asked. “Does the data the government has been collecting on a regular basis on multiple platforms not suffice?”

“The government has data for all national ID holders. It has data for all passport holders. The government has information from voters’ registers, learning institutions, village chairpersons and so on; and most of it is documented.”

The Monitor added, “Yet, somehow, the same government suffers information deficits in times of crime and tracing important documentation or persons of interest.”

More than meets the iris

But there’s more to the roll out of the biometric system than meets the iris scanner. In May, Reuters reported that the national ID scheme had already been linked as a precondition for the collection of government welfare subsidies by the elderly.

“When Otajar John heard senior citizens would be given 25,000 Ugandan shillings ($7) per month as part of a new government welfare scheme, he jumped at the chance to apply,” they article read.

It added, “After a lifetime of working as a farmer, the octogenarian from rural eastern Uganda was living hand to mouth, reliant on begging to survive. The financial support offered by the state would certainly help him, he thought.”

And continued, “But almost two years on, John has still not been able to claim his monthly allowance because he does not have a valid national digital identity card.”

The report further explained that the quality control standards of the system are not exactly world class.

John stated that although he did attempt to apply for a national ID, the birth date issued on his card was 10 years younger than his real one, rendering him ineligible to receive benefits.

Linking income to digital identity harkens to Ukraine’s central bank digital currency (CBDC) and digital ID app, Diia, which pays users “funds” for completing certain tasks, such as accepting Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) vaccines.

However, a key feature of CBDCs that differs from normal cash and electronic payment systems is that the funds are actually distributed in the form of something like a smart contract or a coupon. 

In Diia’s case, for example, one such disbursement was only able to be spent on books sold by a certain state-linked publisher.

A May of 2021 article by the Association for Progressive Communications revealed that the amount of data the non-biometric national ID system was collecting was already exceptional.

Based on a survey conducted by a second outlet, the article stated that 25 percent of male and 13 percent of male respondents stated they felt the system was “considered to be an invasion of their privacy” and “a ploy by government to spy on them,” because it collected “information relating to ethnicity, tribe, parents details, TIN number, occupation, address and spouse details.”

A harsh precedent

The deployment of biometric data collection in the developing world is far from new.

In perhaps the most stark of cases, during the blunderous debacle that was the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, it came to light in the aftermath that a Taliban-linked group of special forces had begun hunting NATO allies using Afghan data collected by the U.S. military and left in abandoned hardware.

A brigade commander of the Al Isha special forces was paraphrased as proudly boasting to the world at the time, “That his unit is using US-made hand-held scanners to tap into a massive US-built biometric database and positively identify any person who helped the NATO allies or worked with Indian intelligence,” reported Zenger in a translated interview.