This week, Somalilanders went to the polls in a historic presidential election. Officials employed advanced iris-scanning technology to identify voters and prevent duplicate ballots — the first use of such a biometric system in a national election.
For Somaliland, a breakaway region whose independence has not yet been recognized by the U.N., the scanners also made a powerful statement about its legitimacy as a nation-state.
Traditional ways to identify voters, including ID cards and indelible ink, aren't perfect. Paper identification can be forged, and ink can be washed off. In Somaliland, concerns about duplicate voting in past elections have been well-documented, to the point that the legitimacy of the process has been questioned, according to Calestous Juma, a professor of international development at Harvard Kennedy School.
The move to iris-scanning technology is a way to thwart these concerns. It's also a high-tech solution that vaults Somaliland ahead of more connected countries such as Nigeria and Kenya. In the latter, concerns about the transmission of electronic ballots figured prominently in the Supreme Court's decision to annul the August election.
"When elections don't go well, it basically generates the view that Africa is not ready for democracy," Juma told VOA. Iris scanning helps Somaliland improve its democratic process by incorporating the best-available technology, Juma said.
Like fingerprints, everyone's eyes are unique. But because our irises also have a highly complex pattern, they're more reliable than other biometrics.
To establish someone's identity, iris scanning involves capturing high-quality images of an individual's eyes. To record the greatest detail possible, the scan uses special cameras capable of sensing both visible and infrared light. The images are then added to a database where they can be compared with any other saved images to find potential matches, indicating a duplicate.
Building public trust
Early on, Somaliland contacted researchers on the forefront of iris-scanning technology at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana to ensure the feasibility of the technology. Election officials engaged in a lengthy pilot study to test different system designs and solicit feedback from the public. This transparent process built trust, Juma said.
In a test ahead of the Somaliland election, Notre Dame researchers correctly found all 457 duplicates in a large sample of images. No false positives were identified in the process — any pair of images determined to be a duplicate did, in fact, belong to the same person.
These results show a high degree of accuracy, although a small collection of images required manual verification after the software's analysis generated inconclusive results.
The effort is particularly inspiring given Somaliland's poverty and struggle for international recognition, according to Juma. "To me, [it's] a demonstration to the commitment that Somaliland has to having credible elections."
Still, biometric identification such as iris scanning isn't without critics, and concerns about privacy loom particularly large. For the system to work, images must be stored and, to create a national registry, transmitted. That means a data breach is possible. And emerging technologies suggest individuals' eyes could soon be scanned without their consent. So-called long-range iris scanning makes it possible to capture a scan from dozens of feet away.
Vote counting is under way to determine Somaliland's fifth leader since the republic broke away from Somalia in 1991. The current president, Ahmed Mohamed Mohamoud, did not seek re-election, clearing the way for one of three candidates to assume his post.
Election observers from 27 countries found isolated issues at the over 1,600 polling stations, but no problems with the iris scanners have been reported.