Category Archives: News

Countries Debate Openness of Future National IDs

Kenya’s High Court ruled Thursday that a recent amendment requiring citizens to register for a national biometric digital identification system overreached on some counts, such as allowing for links to DNA or GPS records, and failed to guarantee sufficient inclusion of Kenyan residents. 

The ID system, called the National Integrated Identity Management System (NIIMS), was a homegrown answer to India’s pioneering Aadhaar system, which two years ago faced its own Indian Supreme Court ruling that upheld some components while modifying others. 

More than half of African countries are developing some form of biometric or digital national ID in response to major international calls to establish legal identification for the almost 1 billion people who now lack it. But this ID boom, also taking place outside Africa, often gets ahead of data protection laws, as occurred in Kenya. 

For countries that take the plunge, unscrupulous vendors can lock them into their products. For example, the Kenyan software was accessible only to government agencies and contractors such as Idemia, something Open Society Foundations senior managing legal officer Laura Bingham calls “concerning.” In contrast, an open-source outgrowth of Aadhaar called the Modular Open Source Identity Platform (MOSIP) is showing that there is another way to do it. 

“Our major contribution is to develop the identity platform in open source and modular,” says S. Rajagopalan, MOSIP technology chair and an information researcher at India Institute of Information Technology in Bangalore, so “a country can configure its own ID system by picking and choosing modules. For example, a country can have an ID system without biometrics.”

About 146 countries require citizens and residents to have a national ID of some kind, at least 35 of which include biometric information beyond just a photograph, but dozens more are in talks with biometrics providers.

MOSIP has signed agreements with the governments of Morocco and the Philippines so far. Its open, modular approach on its own probably won’t solve all the security issues associated with early national ID ecosystems such as Aadhaar, Mozilla Foundation researchers wrote in a January 2020 white paper on open ID, but it could empower governments to expect more from the vendors that support future national IDs.

The Philippines, for example, is separating its ID device reader, biometrics recognition systems, and platform integration into three separate tenders. The device reader and biometrics system will integrate with MOSIP. But the separate operators and open source code of the underlying platform would make it easier for the government to replace any one vendor if necessary.

The model is attracting biometrics companies hoping to tap into a large international market for identification at a relatively lower cost. Electrical engineer Rahul Parthe, the co-founder and chairman of the first company to adapt an Automated Biometric Identification System (ABIS) to integrate with MOSIP, says that his company, TECH5, wants its identification technology to include as many people as possible. 

“We as TECH5 see this as a good opportunity, as our ABIS  platform completes the solution and ensures the usage of the technology in the intended way,” Parthe says. When enough governments are on board with open ID platforms, he adds, every tech vendor will be compelled to adapt.

A major incentive for vendors is knowing that their innovations can reach the kinds of scale offered by Aadhaar and the next generation of national IDs across many countries. TECH5, for example, has developed a more information-rich, scannable biometric barcode and smartphone software that would enable people to verify someone’s identity with biometrics even offline. That could empower people in the least connected places.

As it is, a lack of legal ID and restrictive government policies prevent some people from accessing food aid, healthcare, voting, and more. That is why half a dozen civil society groups took the Kenyan government to court over shortcomings they saw in NIIMS and the rushed process by which it was passed. While the court ruled that the passage of the overall law was valid, it accepted some of the petitioner’s criticisms. Among other changes, the court ordered the government to enact new regulations that ensure that NIIMS does not exclude Kenyan residents due to paperwork or biometric irregularities. 

However, the court avoided the question of whether NIIMS’ software should have been more open—one of the points raised by the petitioners—to allow for external scrutiny.

“Due process is open public participation about the architecture, design etc. The court fully skipped it. That is disappointing but not unexpected because historically they don’t understand technology,” says software engineer Anand Venkatanarayanan, one of the expert witnesses for the petitioners.

It will take engineers to fully ensure inclusiveness, says Open Societies Foundations’ Bingham, and they need to get involved from the start: “Engineers who develop technology don’t necessarily think about it because they’re not necessarily involved that early in the process.”

Editor’s note: Updated 30 January 2020 to add quote from Venkatanarayanan.

Ancient crystal growths in caves reveal seas rose 16 meters in a warmer world

The future of sea level rise may be written into the walls of coastal Spanish caves.

Mineral “bathtub rings” deposited inside the limestone Artà Caves on the Balearic island of Mallorca show how high seas rose during the Pliocene Epoch — a time when Earth was about as warm as it’s expected to get by 2100. Those mineral deposits suggest the planet’s seas were around 16 meters higher on average than they are today, researchers report August 30 in Nature.

That measurement provides the most precise peek yet into what may come as climate change causes ice sheets to melt and ocean waters to rise — a process that could happen over hundreds to thousands of years. Previous estimates of Pliocene sea levels gave similar results, but relied on more indirect dating methods or failed to incorporate information about the subsequent rise and fall of the Earth’s crust. The Artà analysis, however, takes that rise and fall into account. 

The new study’s combination of precision dating and corrected sea levels also may help answer a crucial question: How much of Earth’s biggest ice sheet melted during the Pliocene? These sea level measurements suggest that, while smaller ice sheets in Greenland and western Antarctica melted severely, only the parts of the massive eastern Antarctic ice sheet that jutted into the sea melted during that era, says Alan Haywood, a paleoclimatologist at Leeds University in England who was not involved in the study. It’s still unclear, however, how today’s unique warming patterns will affect ice sheets.

“Anything that gives us added information on how sensitive the ice sheets are … is going to be very important,” Haywood says.

aragonite crystals
These aragonite crystals formed 4.39 million years ago inside an overgrowth on a cave feature in the Theater Room in Spain’s Artà Caves. The locations and ages of such growths can help researchers track past sea levels.BOGDAN ONAC

Conditions during the Pliocene, 5.33 million to 2.58 million years ago, may offer the best example of what a human-addled climate will eventually look like (SN: 11/28/17). In the past, paleoclimatologists mainly used two approaches in reconstructing Pliocene sea level changes. One links ratios of two types of oxygen, or isotopes, in fossilized sea creatures to a global record of oxygen ratios and ice sheet cycles. The other uses the ages of ancient coral reefs to estimate ancient sea levels.

For the new study, researchers searched caves for evidence of past sea level change (SN: 4/15/13). “Caves are a very protected environment,” says study coauthor Oana-Alexandra Dumitru, a geochemist at the University of South Florida in Tampa who began collaborating with Mallorcan researchers as a graduate student. “We don’t worry about erosion and other weathering after deposition as much as you would about terrestrial or other records.” 

In the 1970s, Mallorcan researchers found aragonite and calcite deposits on stalactites and stalagmites in the Artà Caves. The deposits, called phreatic overgrowths, accumulate over years when brackish seawater laps against the rock. Similar features have been found in coastal caves on the Italian island of Sardinia and in Mexico and Japan. Early dating attempts in the 1990s and 2000s focused on samples only a few hundreds of thousands of years old. But Dumitru and colleagues used a dating method capable of reaching back further in time, comparing ratios of uranium to lead in the minerals, to determine when the much older Pliocene deposits formed.

stalactites
Delicate stalactites on the ceiling of a coastal cave on the coast of Mallorca, Spain, have some mineral overgrowth from a time when the sea surface was just grazing them. LUCAS LAURSEN

As Earth’s temperatures rose, higher levels of seawater washed into the caves. That rising water left behind mineral deposits at heights from 14.7 to 23.5 meters above today’s sea level, Dumitru’s team found.

One of the lower deposits corresponds with the mid-Piacenzian Warm Period, which lasted from about 3.3 million to 3 million years ago. Global temperatures during that time period were 2 to 3 degrees Celsius warmer than in modern, preindustrial times — and resemble leading forecasts for the year 2100. Global mean sea levels then were 16.2 meters higher than today, Dumitru and colleagues calculate. 

The higher of the six mineral deposits studied corresponds to the Pliocene’s warmest period about 4.39 million years ago, when temperatures were about 4 degrees C higher than in preindustrial times. That Artà sample suggests that seas were about 23.5 meters higher than today. “We still may not know exactly how much sea level rose,” Haywood says. But with results like these, “we’re getting more confidence that we’re in the right ballpark.”

CITATIONS

O.A. Dumitru et al. Constraints on global mean sea level during Pliocene warmth. Nature. Published online August 30, 2019. doi:10.1038/s41586-019-1543-2.

First published by Science News: [html] [pdf].
An edited version appeared in the September 28, 2019, print edition.

See also my 2013 story on the this research for Science News: “Cave Detective Hunts For Clues To Past Sea Level.”

Spain’s rightwing splits hand election victory to Socialists



Spain’s centre-right People’s party suffered the worst defeat in its 30-year history, winning a mere 16.7 per cent of the vote as it was crushed between an insurgent far-right Vox party and the liberal anti-Catalan nationalist Ciudadanos.

Pablo Casado, who took over as PP leader nine months ago and has since steered his party sharply to the right and purged his party lists of associates of his predecessor Mariano Rajoy, admitted to the scale of the disaster. 

“The results were very bad,” Mr Casado said, pinning the blame on the fragmentation of the rightwing electorate and the refusal of the other two parties to agree to local pacts to maximise support.

Read the rest of this news story in the Financial Times: [html].

Socialists win Spain elections as far-right makes breakthrough

Ian Mount and Lucas Laursen in Madrid and Ben Hall in London

The governing Socialist party (PSOE) has won Spain’s general election, taking 123 seats and giving prime minister Pedro Sánchez options to assemble a majority potentially without the support of Catalan separatists. The Socialists won 29 per cent of the vote and gained 37 seats on the previous election in 2016 in a decisive victory over a weakened rightwing opposition which split into three with the breakthrough of the ultranationalist Vox, which took 24 seats.

Read the rest of this news story in the Financial Times: [html].