France’s IDEMIA drawn into another SA tender saga

Samuel Mungadze
By Samuel Mungadze, Africa editor
Johannesburg, 27 Feb 2024
Airports Company South Africa denies IDEMIA influenced its tender specifications.
Airports Company South Africa denies IDEMIA influenced its tender specifications.

French multinational company IDEMIA is embroiled in a second tender controversy, after being accused of having a dual position as “referee and player” in a multimillion-rand contract with Airports Company South Africa (ACSA).

The latest drama involves the implementation of biometric and facial recognition technologies, as well as eGate systems for regulating passenger movements at airports.

New revelations have surfaced about how IDEMIA, purportedly with the assistance of internal parties, secured the multimillion-rand, four-year contract.

ITWeb has seen documents linked to the eGates and passenger facilitation tender from 2021, which formed the basis for the allegations.

The documents mention a memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed with ACSA for passenger facilitation, border management and eGates systems in 2021, a year before the contract was advertised.

The tender was awarded in August 2023, and IDEMIA is currently busy with phase one. The contract value is approximately R380 million over three phases. Most of the bidders were international companies that partnered with local SMMEs.

This, according to insiders, raised questions as to why IDEMIA and ACSA signing an MOU when it was widely known that ACSA will go out to tender for the same.

Both ACSA and IDEMIA have denied any wrongdoing in the issuance of the contract.

At the centre of the controversy is the allegations that the MOU provided IDEMIA with exclusive information, giving it an unfair edge over other bidders.

Furthermore, it is alleged IDEMIA's trademarks are incorporated in the tender document, leading to suspicions that the MOU was used to influence the procurement process and requirements.

Also, ACSA conceded its officials and representatives attended workshops organised by IDEMIA in which specifications of the tender were discussed.

It said: “ACSA representatives attended meetings with DHA [Department of Home Affairs] stakeholders responsible for the biometric movement control system (BMCS), focusing on understanding the operation of the BMCS and its integration into airport processes.”

No misdeeds

ACSA has denied IDEMIA influenced its tender specifications, despite the company’s trademarks being key in the tender specification documents.

“IDEMIA, like all other entities, submitted a bid during the tender process and did not function as both referee and player,” said ACSA in response to ITWeb’s questions.

It added: “The MOU was a non-binding arrangement between ACSA and IDEMIA aimed at understanding the functioning of the token system in the BMCS-DHA solution for research and knowledge purposes.

“It did not constitute a binding contract or involve any financial transactions between the parties. The MOU served as a non-disclosure agreement for information related to the BMCS solution, considering its significance as a key point infrastructure of the state.”

When asked if the MOU provided IDEMIA with exclusive information, giving it an unfair edge over other bids, the company responded: “ACSA disagrees with this claim. The meetings aimed to explore scenarios for integrating DHA-BMCS biometrics into airport processes to enhance security, operation and passenger experience.

“Understanding this integration was crucial for optimising airport processes, complying with privacy regulations and enhancing cyber security frameworks.”

According to insiders, no subject matter expert other than IDEMIA was invited to participate in this critical matter for ACSA.

Further, asked if ACSA notified National Treasury of the MOU or requested the exclusion of IDEMIA from ACSA contract COR6871/2022/RF, the company said: “ACSA has consistently complied with all relevant legislation.

“ACSA officials were solely responsible for conceptualising, drafting and issuing the tender documents when ACSA went out for the tender.”

It added: “ACSA initiated the specification process for this project in 2018, based on industry standards such as IATA's higher trust in identity document validation and privacy protection measures. The specifications also drew from IATA's white paper and the POC conducted in Cape Town, focusing on biometrics.”

Approached for comment, IDEMIA’s head office in France issued a statement, saying: “IDEMIA Public Security has a longstanding presence in Africa, including South Africa.

“Compliance and transparency are top priorities for IDEMIA Public Security, which reaffirms its commitment to systematically align itself with the procedures and regulations of the states in which it operates, as is the case for South Africa.

“IDEMIA Public Security follows, as it has always done, all tender conditions in its work with any clients.”

More drama

This is the second tender controversy in recent years involving IDEMIA in South Africa.

Two years ago, the State Information Technology Agency (SITA) flagged the multimillion-rand biometrics contract ceded by the DHA to IDEMIA as illegal.

SITA, the agency which procures ICT services for government departments, said the DHA’s move to hand-over the R200 million contract to IDEMIA did not comply with procurement laws and set a bad precedence for government.

The contract was to migrate data on the current Home Affairs National Identification System, which only records photos and fingerprints of South African citizens, to the new Automated Biometric Identification System (ABIS) and was previously held by EOH.

The botched ABIS project was ceded to IDEMIA in March 2021 after it failed for three years under EOH, with IDEMIA as a subcontractor. The ceded contract was then supposed to be up and running after nine months, but instead phase one only went live in September 2023 after 30 months of several attempts.