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The BS of fingerprint ID-ing ballots

The BS of fingerprint ID-ing ballots

From day one, Imran has been crying about ballot stuffing and has been asking for verifyication that every vote was rightfully cast by people from that constituency and no ballot stuffing occurred by verifying the thumb prints recorded on ballot papers.

So the ECP jumped on the bandwagon and said that in disputed constituencies, such an exercise would be done but “each thumb impression will be manually verified” but somehow “NADRA will be able to verify 500,000 votes per day”. Meaning, no manual verification would be done but computerized matching with a human running the machine, most likely. There was uproar when the ECP asked the disputing candidates to share the burden of the exercise but now the public kitty has taken over the responsibility entirely (The cost was stated to be Rs 90 million at one point). Now, two constituencies are being put to the test.

This is a pointless exercise. Let me explain.

First things first. From CSI and general reverence of forensic science in the media, people have been led to believe that fingerprint matching is foolproof and scientific. That is, every human being has a unique fingerprint. That claim is entirely false. There is no scientific evidence to state so and there is no proof of such a uniqueness. There is high uniqueness, but not a 100%, and the FBI has stopped claiming 100% match in court submissions now. Fingerprint matching, unlike DNA matching, was developed by law enforcement and not the scientific community. LEAs found it an easy, accessible and very distinguishable form of identification and took it in stride as the basis of ID. Fingerprint matches are done on the basis of minutiae and the threshold required to confirm a match varies from agency to agency, from country to country. In court, a ‘computerized match’ ala CSI is not acceptable and a human with expertise in fingerprint matching is required to verify a match. This leads to arbitrary, personalized decision making obviously. There has been at least one major case of a wrong match. From 48 million+ prints, a computerized system returned 15 possible matches for an expert to verify (7 minutiae matches) and based on  12-13+ minutiae matches, a match was returned by one the most respected experts in the field. In the end, the match was wrong and anyone interested in forensics can read the detailed inquiry into that, with comments on the science underneath, here. Moreover, studies have shown experts will reduce threshold to give a match if they know that the case under review is of a more potent nature (terrorism etc). Sidenote: snow flakes aren’t unique either. That’s a myth as well.

Secondly, NADRA admits that it does not have the “biometric record” of around 4 million females. Yes, you read that right. They have either issued IDs without taking pictures/fingerprints of simply lost the record. NARA, which utilizes a similar system, earlier in the 00s accepted having issued thousands of cards under the name “Bibi” (no given name for a female) and pictures under burqas, basically making an ID pointless. NADRA here accepted that “relaxation had been provided to women against provisioning of their photographs considering social values.” How were these women placed on electoral rolls then? (Pictures were printed on rolls for verification at polling stations) There’s apparently a rise in CNICs being issued with fake fingerprints as well, using gummy fingers. You can hear tales (or view them online) where either prints were wrongly recorded or AFIS returned wrong results too.
Now that we know that fingerprint matching is not foolproof even in itself, and besides the point that NADRA admits to not having the biometric data of millions on record, and that there are women without pictures on record, how does NADRA go about ‘authenticating’ votes using fingerprints?
  • Will smudgy blots, ie an unclear thumbprint, unable to lead to a match lead to discarding of that ballot paper?
  • What if the computerized matching has a low threshold and returns a match for prints on two ballot papers but they are in actuality not a match?
  • What if a thumb impression on a ballot paper is not in NADRA’s record, as they have accepted not having millions of prints? Will this mean such a ballot paper is rejected?
  • If the magnetic ink was not used on a ballot paper and ordinary stamp ink was used, would that vote be rejected or merely be returned without verification?
The cost of the exercise is in the millions. Some ‘software’ — no names yet — has been bought. No details of the process have been released. Will they be returning matches based on only level 2 features or use level 3 in the matching process too? Will all matching be computerized? What about false matches? What will be the path if a print is smudgy and the features aren’t very clear? Will the print be rejected or accepted as is? Will any humans verify prints at all? Based on NADRA’s recent statements, it’ll be an entirely computerized matching which given the fact that these exemplar prints might not be of the highest quality, renders the entire exercise a pretty big blow.
People and politicians alike are being wooed by the idea of fancy forensics, shady science underneath, and the sanctity of the ballot paper is in question. If NADRA cannot verify a print, would they take it as a fake ballot paper, stuffed by someone from outside the constituency voters and reject that vote? Is that fair?
There needs to be a better way than fingerprint identification of all votes. Brazil like fingerprint recording EVMs are too costly for Pakistan. Just import the really good and really cheap Indian EVMs.

About Shahid Saeed

Shahid likes to waste time reading history.

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