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February 15, 2022

Determining the implications of biometric technologies on Nigerian startups

By Nigerian journalist Anibe Idajili, a participant in the Digital Identity, Data and Technology in Africa Workshop 2021 and digital identity reporting grant series. First published in TechCity.

“Fingerprint scanners? No, we don’t need them here; we only have CCTVs,” Aminat Mohammed, who operates a water packaging business with her husband in Lokoja, said.

“These advanced systems are relatively expensive, and not every company can afford them; I understand that large organizations such as banks and hospitals may require them, but we only have an employee attendance register for keeping records of presence, absence, and sick leaves, though we have started to keep customer records on the computer,” she explained.

Mohammed is right. Despite the fact that biometrics are increasingly being used in corporate, government, and consumer security systems, they are not inexpensive, and many Nigerian companies still use spreadsheets to keep track of their data.

Nonetheless, the global biometrics market is expected to significantly increase from $17 billion in 2018 to $76 billion by 2027, according to Research and Markets.

In the last several years, a growing number of Nigerian employers are, however, transitioning from traditional security and access control to biometric solutions.

So, what exactly are biometrics?

Fingerprints, hand geometry, eye pattern, and face shape are all commonly used for biometric authentication. Biometrics allows each person to be uniquely identified based on their physical or behavioural characteristics. People who are under surveillance can be identified using this technology.

Employers use biometric technologies to streamline their authentication process.

This is because biometrics provide a more robust, sophisticated level of security and access control and management than its traditional counterparts due to the physical parameters involved in identifying persons.

The adoption of biometric technologies in Nigeria

According to a survey by Comparitech, an online platform that conducts tech research, biometric data collection and use are widespread and invasive in Nigeria.

The study examines biometric data collection in 96 of the world’s top 100 economies by gross domestic product (GDP). Nigeria is the 9th-worst country in terms of biometric data collection, storage, and use.

Over the years, an increasing number of Nigerian public institutions now have electronic means such as websites, emails, payment portals, etc. by which they deliver services and information to citizens.

The government also applies biometric technology in civil service reforms to routinely flush out ghost workers from the payroll.  

The ongoing Identity registration by the National Identity  Management Commission, Bank Verification Number exercise, SIM card registration, and the Independent National Electoral   Commission Voters Register are all anchored on biometric technology.

Biometric technologies are also used by Nigerian banks and the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to identify bank customers using fingerprints and face recognition.

Every customer is issued a unique number known as a Bank Verification Number (BVN), which is used to verify all individuals with bank accounts and, as a result, authenticate the customer’s identity.

While biometric security systems have been widely used in governmental institutions and banks, the idea of biometrics may seem too technologically sophisticated for small enterprises in Nigeria.

According to a recent survey I conducted, 90% of the 30 small businesses polled throughout Nigeria do not currently use biometrics for security and business purposes such as employee access and data security. 30% plan to at least consider adopting biometrics in the coming years.

In reality, while the majority of small business owners believe biometric authentication is more secure than passwords, PINs, and personal security questions, only 42% believe biometrics are secure enough to be utilized as the sole method of authentication, according to the results of my poll.

While 37% of the 21 employees polled believe biometrics are effective at protecting data and securing identity data on-premises, they do not fully subscribe to the technology.

Biometrics are acceptable to 45% of respondents, but the remaining 18% are concerned that it will encroach on their privacy.

Additionally, despite significant progress in the use of biometrics in Nigeria, the findings of the survey reveal that Lagos and Abuja have the best biometric data collection and utilization practices.

Biometric technology does have drawbacks

User security and privacy are two major issues that have arisen as a result of the use of biometrics in Nigeria. For both small business owners and customers, collecting and utilizing data connected to specific physical attributes is a big step.

Simply put, data privacy is easily compromised, according to David Ilemona, the founder and CEO of Danibe Farms, a Niger State-based agricultural startup. “What if a determined individual discovers people’s personal information and exploits the system? Personal information about consumers being leaked is a huge worry for small businesses like mine.”

Source: Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN)

According to Eze Hanson Obasi, an IT expert in Nigeria, cybercriminals have been known to develop innovative methods around employees’ information on occasion. Cost, reliability problems, system update requirements, and concerns regarding the storage and management of biometric data, according to Obasi, are some of the challenges to startups in Nigeria adopting biometric authentication.

Many business owners, according to Obasi, are skeptical of biometrics as a secure and dependable replacement for the traditional login and password combination. “For instance, many Nigerians already feel that biometric-enabled e-governance is the government’s means of infringing on citizens’ rights and that it is linked to victimization, persecution, and exclusion,” Obasi said.

However, Olawale Adeyina, the Team Lead of TechCity, Nigeria’s first tech blog, said the cybersecurity dangers connected with biometric technology may be minimized using multifactor authentication.

Human rights concerns have also been expressed, especially when governments use biometric data for profiling and mass surveillance. Many people feel that Nigerian government agencies collect and process personal data in violation of data protection rules, with insufficient supervision and recourse.

“We hear of data privacy laws and procedures in the use of data acquired,” Shedrack Muazu, Team Lead of Youths in Justice, Health, and Sustainable Social Inclusion (YIJHSSI), says, “but I doubt that implementation is effective.”

Should Nigerian startups use biometric technologies?

It is debatable. Do the advantages outweigh the costs and concerns about security?

Biometrics, despite the inherent security issues, are advantageous to Nigerian startups. For instance, for employee authentication, many Nigerian businesses are already exploring the usage of facial recognition CCTV and finger-vein scanners. In fact, fingerprint scanners are not only more affordable and accessible than facial recognition CCTVs, voice-based recognition, physiological recognition, and typing pattern recognition but they are also found on many smartphone devices.

With startup owners suffering losses due to time theft, the investment into biometrics promises a very favorable return.

“We used fingerprints to clock in and out when I worked at a fintech, according to Abayomi Michael, a former employee of a Lagos-based financial services company. “Not everyone could advance into restricted areas of the business.”

Michael feels that employees will be more accountable if they believe a mechanism is in place to track what they accomplish at work. “For startup owners who want to develop strong businesses, biometrics may be a key component of ensuring a sense of control,” he stated.

“It is a high-priority change,” according to Obasi. Nigerian startups, in my opinion, should not rush towards the usage of biometric technologies. Instead, they should learn as much as they can and figure out how to make this technology accessible and useful to them without jeopardizing employee or customer privacy.”

“Overall, whether you are a small business with five employees, a retail store, or a big company, biometrics will most likely provide your organization with a viable security solution,” Obasi concluded.

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