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Illustration by Sam Ward

A Vote for Biometrics

​“The face is the mirror of the mind, and eyes without speaking confess the secrets of the heart.” When St. Jerome expressed these sentiments centuries ago, he couldn’t have imagined that his words would apply to iris identification, and in such a profound way. 

St. Jerome’s sentiments were universal, and now so are the biometric tech­nologies that his words foreshadowed. Once the province of first-world countries, recognition technologies are becoming commonplace solutions in less developed parts of the world.

Consider developing countries, where the challenge of registering voters can be immense. Limited infrastructure, illiterate populations, and lack of government-issued identification are just a few of the obstacles. In addition, underlying fears of corruption, and voters who attempt to register more than once, can plague the democratic process. 

To overcome these obstacles, some nation- states are turning to biometrics for fairer, more transparent elections. Fingerprints have been used for elections in developing countries the world over, including in Brazil, Tanzania, and Uganda. 

But fingerprints have certain limitations when it comes to biometric identifiers, including that the ridges on a person’s fingers can be worn down over time, and there are a limited number of unique “points” to map on each individual’s prints. The iris, however, contains more data that can be used to identify a person, including nuanced flecks, rings, and pigmented spots. 

Somaliland is a self-declared state that separated from Somalia in May of 1991. While internationally recognized as an autonomous region of Somalia, it is not legally a separate country. With the help of a nongovernmental organi­zation, In­terpeace, and a number of technology partners, Somaliland is using iris identification technology to register voters. Until this project, deploying the neces­sary technology to capture iris scans across a population for democratic voting had never been attempted. ​


Originally known as the War-torn Societies Project, Interpeace was established in 1994 as a peacekeeping body of the United Nations (UN). The organization eventually broke off from the UN and was renamed, but it continued its mission to help build peace in societies around the world.   

Jerry McCann, deputy director general for operations at Interpeace, says that his organization’s involvement in Somaliland elections began in 2004. Somaliland had been working toward democratic elections since the late 1990s, and it had established its first election commission in 2002. Rather than come in with outside expertise to advise the commission on how to act, McCann says Interpeace wanted to empower the country’s stakeholders from within to succeed in the electoral process. 

“It’s really letting a society build on its capacities,” he notes. “That’s the kind of patience that you need, because these things can’t happen quickly, they have to happen over iterations and incremental steps toward greater capacities.”

In 2005 the country held its first parliamentary elections, despite rudimentary voter registration technology, McCann says. “That’s the interesting thing about homegrown democracy,” he notes. “To begin with it was just, ‘get the ballots out there and let people vote,’ but then it quickly started to become vulnerable to corruption of stuffing ballot boxes and double voting, and all the things that can creep into these kinds of processes.” ​


To harden the elections against corruption and voter confusion, the Somali­land National Electoral Commission (NEC) determined that fingerprints were the most logical method for registering voters. 

The governing electoral body rolled out this system in 2008 and 2009 in preparation for the 2010 presidential elections. But, as McCann explains, this approach faced challenges. 

“In this case, you have people that are herders of livestock, and people that work the land, so fingerprints can become weak or completely worn off, and we had a lot of problems with that kind of situation,” he says.

In addition, many voters tried to double-register by removing the ink from their fingers and registering to vote again under a different name. McCann adds that internal challenges also plagued the NEC, which changes membership every five years. “So it was a rocky start to a more technical approach to registration,” he says. 

Presidential elections were held in 2010 using fingerprinting technology, but the NEC wanted to further improve the voter registration system and prevent duplicate registrations. It commissioned a field study in 2013 with several biometric technologies. Iris recognition ultimately triumphed as the most efficient and reliable voter registration method. 

“The field study proved to the donors, the NEC, and Somaliland public at large that iris recognition could prevent the multiple registrations that had plagued the previous voter registration,” notes elections specialist Roy Dalle Vedove, who helped conduct the study. Dalle Vedove, a forensic data analysis expert by profession, has been assisting developing countries in elections since he was called to help investigate alleged electoral fraud in Guyana in 2001. 

One of the many biometric vendors surveyed during the study was Iris ID. During the field study, its iris-recognition camera and software application helped to register thousands of voters in a test phase. After the study, the NEC identified the product as the most effective technology for registration, and, in March 2015, Iris ID was awarded the contract. 

The iris, the colored part around the pupil of the eye, contains unique characteristics that make it nearly impossible to confuse with that of another individual.  

According to research published in the International Journal of Electronics, Communication & Instrumentation Engineering Research and Development, there are three main reasons that the iris is a reliable form of identification. The eye is a “naturally protected internal organ that is visible from the exterior,” its round shape is easy to segment and measure, and its texture has random, identifiable characteristics that are present throughout a person’s life, the journal explained in an October 2013 paper. Those random characteristics can actually be recorded point by point, which is what the iris recognition software captures. 

A template for each iris is built when the photo is taken, and an algorithm within Iris ID’s software is used to determine whether there is a match to the sample or whether there is a duplicate re­cord from a voter who is attempting to register twice. 

In addition, the false positive rate, also known as the false rejection rate, is almost zero for iris data compared to about 3 percent for fingerprints. These false positives occur when the system incorrectly rejects an eligible person’s biometric data as a duplicate. A 3 percent false positive rate out of 500,000 registrants (about 500,000 votes were recorded in the 2010 Somaliland presidential elections) would amount to 15,000 false positives.

The program is a now a point of pride in the country. “This sets Somaliland on the forefront. Initially there was some criticism from other electoral management bodies that the technology was unsuitable,” Dalle Vedove says, citing a study by the Center for Global Development in 2013 that outlined the huge amounts of taxpayer dollars that went into fingerprinting systems in other countries, but that largely proved to be unsuccessful. 

(These findings are outlined in the study, titled Identification for Development: The Biometrics Revolution. For more on this study, see the article “Biometrics in Developing Regions” in the June 2013 issue of Security Management.)

But thanks to the success of the field study, the field tests, and the registration itself in Somaliland so far, “the criticism has become less voluble,” Dalle Vedove notes.

In addition to Iris ID, there were other technology partners in the process. IT infrastructure provider Atea won the contract to deliver fully designed and operational kits with the Iris ID cameras, and Daon, another biometrics technology firm, provided all of the software design. 

Each kit is made up of the carrying case, a laptop, a printer, an iris scanner, a webcam for photos, a light for photos, and a tripod. The NEC bought 350 kits, which allow for sequential rollout of voter registration by region. It plans to carry out registration in all six of its regions over a consecutive five-month period. 

The entire process of registering one voter takes about 10 minutes. The individual registrant doesn’t need to be literate, because an interviewer is present to take down demographic information. The person then puts on a pair of goggles, which have a high-resolution camera inside. A screen in front of the individual displays the camera image of the eyes, increasing the transparency of the process. An infrared light shines on the eyes, the photo is taken, and biometric data is captured.  

“You get to see what’s being captured, but you’re not feeling anything. It’s not invasive in any way, which is also quite nice,” McCann adds. 

Once voters are entered into the system, they are issued a temporary certificate until their voter card is produced. Each day, each record is checked against all existing records to ensure there is no duplication.​


The NEC rules say that elections must take place no sooner than six months after the voter list is published, and they are projected to take place in April 2017. This is the first time Somaliland is holding combined elections—parliamentary and presidential—at the same time.

The first registrants were captured in January of this year, and registration will end in June, when the final voter list must be produced.  The final voter list will be published in September in advance of the elections.

“Once we have the provisional voter registry, meaning that all of the people are registered, we have to display the provisional lists so that people can see if they are on the list or not, and then are able to dispute or contest if they’re not happy with the situation,” McCann says. 

Once the final voter list is set, each registrant gets a voter identification card that he or she will need to bring to vote. “So at least there’s a means by which they can ensure that a person is only voting in the place they registered, and only voting once,” he says. The registration also helps the NEC send the proper number of ballots to each location so there aren’t too many or too few materials at any given site. 

So far there haven’t been attempts by local leaders to foster mistrust of the technology or the registration process, which McCann says can sometimes happen in more rural areas. 

“This is largely because [the process] was identified by the electoral commission, it was tested with the population, there was good awareness-raising…and they got the buy-in that they needed in advance of launching the process,” McCann explains.

Spreading awareness about the elections and the registration process has been tackled in creative ways. “The literacy rates are quite low, especially when you get out into the rural communities,” McCann says. “This is one thing they’ve done over the years quite nicely, they’ve found ways of cartooning the process and using other visual means of spreading awareness.” 

When the registration centers are set up in the field, the NEC provides cartoon depictions that explain the process so people queuing up can gain a deeper understanding of the system and how the elections will work. 

Mohamoud Wais, one of the NEC’s seven commissioners and vice chairman of the commission, has been involved in the first round of registering voters in the field. From what he’s seen so far, he says he is hopeful about the registration system. “The people are excited…the process is much smoother and the system we use is more sophisticated [than before],” Wais says. 

He explains that the level of community involvement and engagement by the NEC and other partners is breeding success for the registration process. 

“It will be more systematic and organized, and we are hoping for better elections, that we can call them credible and acceptable…I think this is the key to Somaliland’s future.”   ​