What good is a Biometric System without a good National IT Infrastructure in place?

By: Scott A. Mandeh

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
Sept 14, 2007


I read with great interest when I saw an article entitled “Liberia to fight fraud with bio scans” published on the Yahoo news website - http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20070831/ap_on_re_af/liberia_ghost_employees_1.

The article is of interest because of the soon to be used technology, the Biometric scan. The article quoted Dr. William Allen, the Civil Service Agency Director-General that Civil Servants will soon begin scanning their fingerprints, eyes and faces. Let me commend Dr. Allen for a good start; but we need not to implement all of the Biometrics just because we can afford them or they sound good to be used.

There are different kinds of Biometrics. Each of them has its pros and cons. One would assume that Dr. Allen’s Information Technology Advisor, if he has one, would apprise him about the different kinds of Biometric and why one is better than the other

Without wearying you with technical jargon, it would be prudent for Dr. Allen to get a Biometric system that would solve the problem he is trying to tackle. As I read from the article, Dr. Allen wants to implement a Biometric system to properly identify Civil Servants.

One who does not know about the Biometric system or how it works might wonder why Dr. Allen can not just use the Photo Identification to identify the civil servants. Both the Photo Identification and the Biometric serve the same purpose; that is to identify who an individual is. But one is preferred over the other depending on what you are trying to accomplish. If your goal is to identify a person based upon his/her physical look (normally, the face), the Photo Identification would be the proper technology. However, it has its own drawback. For example: how do you address the issue of identical twin if the identifier does not know about the existence of the civil servant’s twin sibling?

The Biometric system is used to identify vital body part such as the eye, finger, and face of an individual for future verification. Combining three of the technologies to accomplish the same goal is not only improper but will cost the Government of Liberia lot of money; that is if the GOL is paying for it.

Since Dr. Allen wants to verify the GOL’s Civil Servants, the Fingerprinting Biometric technology would serve the purpose. The Fingerprint Biometric has proven to be accurate. It resolves the identical twin issue with Photo Identification. You can look exactly the same with your siblings but the tissues that form the fingers of an individual are not the same. The Biometrics of the eyes or face could also be used but not the combination of two or three of the technologies. Again, this will be a waste of money, in my opinion.

Dr. Allen could use less costly Photo Identification technology to capture the image of a civil servant when he/she is employed. During that process, the person’s fingerprint could also be captured. Both images should be stored in the Civil Service’s Data Repository. When the need arises, the person can be identified in the future by the proper designated official or Dr. Allen.

The question that I rhetorically asked myself when I read the article was: what good is the Biometric system without a National Information Technology Infrastructure in place in Liberia?

Liberians are good at collecting information, but what good is the information when it is not properly processed and stored? What good is the information when it is kept in a file cabin that someone can compromise? Or what good is the information if it is irretrievable when it is desperately needed?

The Government of Liberia has lost vital litigation against some of those who allegedly embezzled the country’s money due to the lack of enough evidence; and some of the pending cases are difficult to prove because of not enough evidence.

Well, when you give people’s vital information on white plates, they would take it and run with it without a trace. Information is important. It can destroy or make a politician/public servant/private citizen.

Take the Ministry of Finance for example; most of the ministry, if not all, daily processes are manual. Is it not easy for one to look into a file cabin and replace or modify a vital document without a trace if the intent for taking the data was malicious? Why do you think hacker spends so much time at their terminal (Computer) trying to illegally get into someone’s or institution’s computer system? They do this because they are in search of information.

Why you think the Robert International Airport (RIA) would not be able to produce an accurate answer if asked how many aliens and who were they that visited Liberia in the past six months? If RIA has answer to this question, it is likely that it would take days to produce it; this is because RIA captured all embarked and disembarked passenger’s data manually. I stand corrected if this has been fixed but this was the case in 2006.

The few government institutions that have Local Area Network (LAN) do not maximize its capability. They use it for simple Microsoft Application such as Word, Excel, or PowerPoint document creation. There is no customized or off-the-shelf software to help automate internal processes. Even those that do have no Disaster Recovery process in place. As a result in the event of unforeseen circumstances such as fire or civil disturbances that directly affect the building that houses the LAN, they would loose all their information (data).This happened to many private and public institutions during the Civil War.

It is disheartening to know that most of our government officials who lived and worked in countries where corporate/government functions are automated and data are properly kept would return to Liberia without making any effort to put such vital practice in place. This is where I salute Dr. William Allen for at least thinking of such technology, the Biometric System.

Post War Liberia should think of creating a National Information Technology Center (NITC) that would help the GOL with its technological needs. If we have such a center, it would ensure that most key ministries and public corporations functions are automated; and the information is kept in a state of the act and difficult to hacked into Local Area Networks; not the one a system savvy whiz can easily entered from the backdoor in a minute at the stroke of few keys. The corporate based Local Area Network (LAN) would be connected to a Wide Area Network (WAN) which would be located at the National Information Technology Center.

This is not the right place to list the functionaries of said center but it would provide values to the Government of Liberia (GOL). For example: (1) it could help to fight corruption. How? If all GOL information are captured and stored in a secured Local Area Network, anyone who uses the information for malicious purpose can easily be detected, and this detection could be used as evidence against the person; (2) the information captured by the center could be shared with other government agencies; for example: if the General Civil Service Agency collects fingerprints to identify all civil servants, the fingerprints could be shared with the National Police Force to identify a criminal; that is if the National Police Force has the requisite technology to capture the fingerprint indicator from the crime scene; (3) it can streamline the GOL processes and increase civil servants productivity; and (4) it can saved the GOL lots of money.

In Liberia official normally under estimate the power of information technology and the values it brings to nation building. This is why information technology discussion can be the least on the do-list of our officials; that is if it is even on the list in the first place. For example: Look at China, India, Philippine, Nigeria, Ghana and the list could go on. These countries empowered their citizens to use and create technology, be it a software application, Local Area Network (LAN), Wide Area Network (WAN), Metropolitan Area Network (MAN) or a Biometric Device, just to name few.

Because of their technological capability, companies in the United States normally outsource some of their Information Technology jobs to the companies in those named counties; hence, the companies in term employ local residents and pay taxes to the government; both the job creation and payment of taxes are part of nation building.

Until the GOL can come to the realization that the information it collects through its various ministries and corporations are important and need to properly store it using computer technology, we got a long way to go in fighting corruption, identifying civil servants and competing with our neighbors.

© 2007 by The Perspective
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