Ghana card fiasco continues with e-passport confusion

By Jaysim Hanspal
Posted on Wednesday, 23 February 2022 19:18

A Ghanian woman poses while holding her family's passports with a U.S. visa in Accra
A Ghanaian woman poses while holding her family's passports with a U.S. visa in Accra, Ghana February 1, 2019. Reuters/Francis Kokoroko

Confusion continues to reign surrounding the Ghana card after a video of the official International Civil Aviation Organisation's Public Key Directory (ICAO PKD) joining ceremony revealed further issues on the future of ePassport in the country. 

The PKD is a central repository used to verify and authenticate biographic and biometric information on international travel documents such as digital passports, electronic ID cards and visible digital seals.

In a video that includes Vice-President Mahamudu Bawumia’s executive secretary, Augustine Blay, and Prince Ofosu Sefah, administrator of the Ghana Investment Fund for Electronic Communications (GIFEC), the National Identification Authority (NIA) appeared to confirm that Ghana card users would be able to use the new ID “without the requirement of a visa or any other travel document”.

This appeared to be the case in November 2021, when Vice-President Bawumia confirmed that the card would be able to be used in “197 borders globally and 44,000 airports” worldwide.

On 10 February 2022, the ICAO tweeted to “congratulate Ghana for its decision to join the ICAO Public Key Directory (PKD)” including a link that expands on advantages for participation.

Speedy retreat

However, after swift backlash online and from various NGO’s, it appears the initial claims have not been correct.

The government can not be cavalier about issues of international law. You will throw a lot of people into confusion about what their rights are and what to do when they are booking flights.

Addressing the confusion, the ICAO said in a statement on 11 February:

“The organization draws its attention, nevertheless, to some recent media coverage that might lead to misunderstanding of its role in defining what documents may be accepted by States for the border control and immigration processes, in particular by suggesting that ICAO has agreed to the equivalency of the Ghanaian ID card and an ePassport on foot of the import ceremony that recently took place.”

“It is not the role of ICAO to certify the use of a State’s Identity Card for international travel in place of a passport.”

According to Bright Simons, vice-president in charge of research at IMANI Centre for Policy and Education, these discrepancies are incredibly important.

“The government can not be cavalier about issues of international law. You will throw a lot of people into confusion about what their rights are and what to do when they are booking flights. According to the ICAO guidelines, the Ghana card can not be an e-passport”, he adds.

Wider rights

This debacle is part of a wider issue surrounding the $124m Ghana card project and a government-led push to sign the public up to connect key services to their national ID. Banking, telecommunication and healthcare are all linked to the card, without which you cannot access these services.

The Bank of Ghana has said that it will only accept the card from 1 July, and Ghanaians who have not registered their SIMs by 31 March will have their numbers blocked. Nigeria also took this approach unsuccessfully – as of January 2019, only 33.7 million Nigerians – out of a total population of 190 million – had received a unique identity number.

Simon adds: “At this point, the Ghana card is heavily commercialised. Private investors hope to reap profits of $1.2bn in 15 years.” Currently the card is free to register, but payment is required to get it verified and fast-tracked. So many Ghanaians are paying to avoid outrageous queues across the country. For those who pay the GHS250 ($40), the cost is one of the most expensive in the world, which will restrict many from accessing key services.

Pegasus machine

“There is a sense that because of the degree of privatisation, the data controls are not entirely clear to us. We know there are foreign companies like Cryptovision that are managing it, but we are not sure if this is playing a role in the surveillance agenda that the previous government had”, said Simons. Trying to determine all investors for the Ghana card is difficult. Identity Management Systems (IMS), part of the Margins Group, is one of the known investors.

Ghana’s previous administration had bought a product called “the Pegasus machine” from Israeli tech company NSO. In an investigation by Forbidden Stories, a non-profit France-based organisation based on the protection of journalists, at least 180 journalists around the world have been selected as targets by clients of the NSO Group.

According to Forbidden Stories, Pegasus has extensive capabilities: the spyware can be installed remotely on a smartphone without permission from the owner. It allows clients to take complete control of the device, including accessing messages from encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp and Signal and turning on the microphone and camera.

Ghana purchased the software in 2016 on the basis of fighting terrorism, and in 2019 the country confirmed that it was using hacking tools made by the Israel-based Cellebrite corporation and provided by the UK, US, and Interpol.

‘Integration agenda’

“The integration agenda worries us because is it about the convenience of citizens or to force Ghanaians to use the Ghana card”, says Simons.

In August 2021, a high court in Ghana ruled that the government breached the Data Protection Act, and ordered the state agency, National Communications Authority (NCA), to stop collecting personal information from mobile phone subscribers.

In a statement on the MFWA website, it says: “It does appear that the government saw the Covid-19 emergency as an opportunity to arrogate more powers to collect user data and also give more authority to Kelni GVG to establish a common platform by connecting real-time to the entire switch of the physical network nodes of MTN Ghana, Vodafone Ghana, AirtelTigo Ghana.”

Bottom line

As the rush for Ghana card registration continues, privacy rights activists and the public continue to push against the potential consolidation of the government’s surveillance agenda.

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