Fingerprints could fight social grant fraud in SA

2014-02-10 09:31
Digital e-commerce solutions are set to catch up to traditional payment methods. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

Digital e-commerce solutions are set to catch up to traditional payment methods. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

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Cape Town - Biometric technology could reduce the corruption in the payment of social grants in South Africa because it is more secure than PIN (Personal Identification Number) cards.

According to a developer of the technology, a fingerprint reader would achieve two goals for vulnerable individuals who have to make a monthly trek to draw their social benefits.

It would authenticate as well as verify the person in one action when they use the technology.

"We are already using biometric designs in several countries, most recently in Argentina where Banco Supervielle deployed Lumidigm biometric enhanced kiosks to facilitate easy and secure transfer of retirement funds to pensioners while at the same time confirming the recipient was the correct and intended pensioner," Mark Shermetaro, Lumidigm CEO told News24.

Currently, South Africans who receive social welfare grants have to periodically report to a local municipal office to verify that they are, in the case of pensioners for example, still alive.

They are also permitted to receive grants at major retail stores where they are often required to queue to long periods of time in order to access their money.


Fraud is also rampant in the South African social grant system.

Reports in 2013 said that nine people were arrested for social welfare fraud totalling R183 000 as officials in some cases improperly paid out grants.

As early as 2008, former social development minister Zola Skweyiya lamented to parliament that fraud was rampant in the systems and called for a special investigation.

Skweyiya said that poor vetting systems had allowed people with links crime syndicates to work in the issuing of social grants.

The addition of biometrics like fingerprinting could stem the tide of corruption as each person would be individually authenticated before they could access their money.

"A PIN can be compromised, forgotten, or dumbed down so far that it is easily guessable. You never forget your finger, and only you can use your finger! What could be more secure or convenient?" said Shermetaro.

He also allayed concerns that the fingerprint image itself could somehow be reverse engineered to compromise the security of the system.

Fail safes

"Additionally, the fingerprint image is converted to a digital template which cannot be 'reversed' to get back to an image.  In many cases this template information itself is encrypted," Shermetaro explained.

"Some Lumidigm sensors also incorporate tamper resistance technology to prevent 'man in the middle' attacks. So the ability to have your fingerprint 'hacked' and used fraudulently is rare," he added.

However, despite the promise of the technology, Shermetaro was quick to point out that additional fail safes could be implemented in additional to the fingerprint scanning.

"Further, important or high-value transactions usually require multi-factor authentication, such as a fingerprint and a credential. In such a scenario, a hacker might have the credential but not the fingerprint," he said.

For vulnerable people who may lose digits or be unable to scan them properly because of a disability, the system can be adapted to suit their needs.

"Our sensors can easily read and match any finger, even the pinkie finger, so it would be a simple matter to re-enrol with an available finger if the enrolled fingers were injured. But if someone absolutely cannot use a fingerprint biometric for some reason, our technology has the capability to authenticate an 'optical key' as an alternate on the same sensor," Shermetaro said.

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