How Artificial Intelligence Could Influence Zimbabwe’s 2023 Elections

Picture of Commonwealth Secretariat on Flickr, used under license CC BY-NC 2.0..

After years of citizen mistrust of election management bodies and a perceived lack of transparency, the use of biometric technology, such as the physical and behavioral characteristics of people in political processes, is gaining momentum. is invited to Africa. As Zimbabwe heads towards general elections, constitutionally scheduled for 2023, the campaign will soon be in full swing.

The country organized elections on March 26, 2022, which saw the opposition party Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) win 22 of the 28 seats in the National Assembly. While these elections were a litmus test for major elections scheduled for next year, what role should artificial intelligence (AI) play in shaping political outcomes?

As polling day approaches, of the anomalies related to the voters list have been identified and made public by civil society organizations, raising concerns about the credibility of storing voter biometric data. These include allegations of voter roll manipulation by moving up to 177,000 voters to new constituencies and unauthorized changes to at least 156 polling stations.

The fact that some of these technologies do not rely exclusively on Internet transmission protocols to transmit and store data compels African governments to take a broad approach to controls that address all information security breaches.

Information security

For the past 32 years, almost every election in Zimbabwe has been accompanied by accusations of voter intimidation, voter fraud and violence. As the March 26 elections approach, a familiar narrative thread of data manipulation elections was raised by the CCC and civil society organizations. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) claimed that almost everything was fine and that the electoral list was constantly updated. This lack of transparency not only corrodes trust in biometric technology, it also frustrates the credibility and auditability of the technology’s technical functionality.

In 2018, Zimbabwe concluded a strategic cooperation agreement with Chinese start-up CloudWalk Technology, under which the Government would have access to a facial recognition database that it could use for all sorts of purposes. These uses could range from easier policing under the smart cities initiative to tracking down political dissidents, among others. In return, China accesses this database of Zimbabwean citizens to train its algorithms and improve the ability of its surveillance systems to recognize darker skin tones. The agreement is being implemented in stages and will soon reach the development of camera and network infrastructure in Zimbabwe. AI-based facial recognition software has always struggled to recognize these skin tones and with this collection of personal data from Zimbabweans, China will gain a global competitive advantage in the AI ​​market.

As Zimbabwe’s electoral history demonstrates, information security breaches remain a regular threat. For example, in the run-up to the 2018 elections, the ZEC refused to give the then-dominant opposition party, MDC Alliance, access to the voters list stored on its servers, arguing that such access could compromise the security of sensitive data. Speaking to the media, the President of the ZEC, Priscilla Chigumba, said that the 2018 elections could not have been rigged because Zimbabwe’s voting system was tamper-proof, as all citizens’ personal data that had been collected as part of the biometric registration process was hosted on a consolidation server . She added that these servers have very sophisticated protection files and access level passwords that are impossible to crack. Despite this declaration by the head of the ZEC, some voters have received text messages targeted propaganda campaigns from the ruling party, ZANU PF, which confirmed that the commission had provided voter data to the ruling party. The ZEC responded to the allegations by admitting that its database had been hacked.

In an interview, Nate Allen, assistant professor of security studies at the Washington-based Africa Center for Strategic Studies, said the problem was not so much the technology itself as the choices people make. repressive regimes in the use of technology and for what purposes.

“Naturally, authoritarian regimes will be interested in biometric technology for many, but the wrong reasons, to closely monitor political opposition movements, to harass, detain and potentially intimidate voters and activists, to ‘adopt sanctions or the selective punishment of those who do not support the regime enough,’ said prof. Allen at Global Voices.

He noted that one of the biggest problems so far with the deployment of biometrics across Africa is that it is really difficult to collect biometric data on every citizen. ” Citizens from the most marginalized groups are the most likely to be excluded; which can have all sorts of second-order consequences, from preventing them from voting to being denied access to benefits,” he said.

In a study, the digital expert and human rights lawyer of the Ethics Institute of the University of Utrecht, Arthur Gwagwa, affirms that in the past, Zimbabwe’s reliance on information security was based on the overt militarization and securitization of the internet, for example, the involvement of Israeli firm Nikuv collaborating with the military in electoral processes.

However, the recurrent allegations of manipulation of voter lists seem to suggest a more covert integration of political intentions into (biometric) technologies. ” The management of an election is primarily run by civilians and under the auspices of a respected former judge who knows the importance of upholding the rule of law. In this case, the rule of law becomes a double-edged sword since the constitution gives the electoral commission the mandate to manage the elections, including the technological aspects,” underlines Mr. Gwagwa.

The ZEC, for example, has the full mandate to oversee the printing of the ballot paper; which deprives the opposition of the opportunity to test the encrypted technological capabilities and security features of the ballot.

The conundrum of biometrics and privacy

When technologies are adopted in the absence of a strong legal framework and strict safeguards, they pose significant threats to personal privacy and security, as their application can be broadened to facilitate discrimination, social triage and discrimination. mass surveillance. Mr Gwagwa points out that in Zimbabwe, some politically linked parties have threatened retaliation against people who vote a certain way because they have access to voters’ biometrics and serial numbers in order to monitor voting habits. This type of bullying is more prevalent in rural areas, where large swaths of the country’s population reside.

In an interview with Global Voices, Mr. Gwagwa said that in Zimbabwe, the phenomenon of fake news, misinformation and hate propaganda can be limited to WhatsApp and sometimes Facebook, where the state can curb broadband to slow down the flow of data that shines a positive light on the opposition. ” Unlike liberal democracies where digital interference threatens democracy, human rights, rule of law, this can be mitigated by sovereignty and constitutional provisions. The impact of foreign direct investment in Africa impedes the realization of these ideals in the first place, the social unity upon which they are based and any skeletal constitutional arrangement that exists to mitigate its impact,” Mr. Gwagwa said.

Furthermore, says Mr. Gwagwa, “Zimbabwe can partially repeat what it did last time or simply borrow from the toolkit of Cameroon or Malawi, or proceed with its own recipe to deal with the threat of moment,” referring to how he conducted the 2018 general election, through a process called sharing and authoritative mirroring. It basically refers to how authoritarian governments adopt repressive methods used in similar regimes in order to achieve desired political results.

With the March 2022 elections over, the 2023 elections will depend on how AI technology is used, for better, for ugly, or for worse.

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How Artificial Intelligence Could Influence Zimbabwe’s 2023 Elections


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