Huduma Namba & Harambee: Kenya’s Biometric Identification Program Raises Concerns

In January of 2019, the Kenyan government announced a sweeping nationwide registration program to collect personal information for the larger biometric identification system formally known as the National Integrated Identity Management System.

The system’s purpose is ambitious. It aims to eventually assign every citizen and resident foreigner a “Huduma Namba,” or service number, to integrate information stored in other government databases that relate to immigration, national security, and other social services.  The Kenyan government argues that such a system would prevent multiple government agencies from having conflicting records and citizens having to travel to Nairobi for services that could be attended to in a more convenient manner.

A Kenyan medic fills out paperwork for a woman during a Medical Civil Action Program, (U.S. Army photo by Major Gregg Tooley)

While these benefits certainly hold some merit, Kenya’s Nairobi High Court raised concerns nearly a year after the Kenyan government’s first introduction of the registration initiative. The court decided to suspend the country’s new program until the Kenyan government enacted stronger legislation to protect the security of the data collected and prevented discrimination against Kenyan minorities.

The issue is complex and has high profile supporters on both sides of the issue of biometric identification.

International institutions such as the World Bank tout the benefits of inclusive and digitally secure biometric identification in empowering vulnerable communities to enroll in social services such as education and pension programs. Such streamlined forms of identification make crossing borders in order to conduct business across borders easier.

They highlight the stories of women like Shanti, whose digital identity through the Indian Aadhaar system enabled her to open a bank account in her name and make and receive digital payments, empowering her to grow her business.

The World Bank acknowledges, however, the hurdles “the invisible billion,” often members of vulnerable populations, face in obtaining official credentials.

The Kenyan government faces a particularly challenging obstacle in ensuring that its system is inclusive and accessible to register for. There is a rather large migrant population, many of whom live in rural areas, as well as individuals with complex historical and political ties to neighboring regions surrounding Kenya. Beyond the challenge of accessible registration is the task of understanding the intricacies of their “Kenyan” nationality requires multiple nuanced, open-minded perspectives beyond a prescribed notion of citizenship.

A tribe of Maasai people, one of the many groups of people in Kenya who may find it difficult to enroll in the biometric identification program as it is.

Other biometric systems also suffer from problems. The Indian Aadhaar system, despite being lauded by the Indian Supreme Court for “giving dignity to the marginalized” has its flaws. Reports of leakages of personal information by brokers and concerns that the system normalizes privacy intrusions leave the Indian government with many considerations to make. The Kenyan government may have to do the same with its own system.

Data privacy activists cite infrastructural problems for the system’s method of data collection and citizens’ privacy rights. They echo the same concerns the Kenyan High Court had when it released its decision. The collection of certain personal information such as DNA is intrusive, and coupled with Kenya’s extremely new data privacy legislation, which lacks legislative stability, offers many areas of improvement for the Kenyan government to make.

Privacy activist group Article 19 Eastern Africa aims to illuminate the broader privacy concerns of the Huduma Namba. The group argues that the regulations do not provide explicit safeguards to the data privacy legislation recently enacted by the Kenyan government nor standards of transparency regarding the handling of such large quantities of data so that citizens can be more informed.

The Kenyan government can rectify and renovate its biometric identification program by committing to enacting more robust data privacy legislation with transparent benchmarks demonstrated to the Kenyan public and ensure that all eligible persons can be properly registered and identified.

The government can look to frameworks established by international organizations. The United Nations has adopted a resolution balancing the interests of national security with the prioritization of the individual’s right to privacy in an increasingly digitized world. It is often argued that the international arena is slow moving, but the Kenyan government can utilize the concept of recognition and legitimacy to acknowledge its rather alarming, expansive role in data collection with the rise of technology and its intent to uphold the evolving digital rights of its constituents. In fact, this sentiment in which data policies and technological systems are created in cooperation with the public may benefit the Kenyan government’s defense of the identification system it seeks to implement.

Uhuru Kenyatta, President of Kenya, and Mukhisa Kituyi, Secretary General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. (Photo by Joseph Kiptarus)

Though the Kenyan High Court ruled that the public was provided with enough information during the process of introducing the biometric registration and did not necessarily coerce individuals to comply with the registration effort, it did acknowledge that the program legislation was not published until after the registration had taken place, negating the rule of law.

Moreover, the program’s legislation included provisions for fines and criminal procedure for failures to comply with registration, which is disproportionate in context with the delay in communicating with the Kenyan public about the system’s specific underpinnings. Kenyan humanitarian advocate Nanjala Nyabola writes in her book Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era is Transforming Kenya that the Kenyan government should not have to punish people into doing something that will ultimately benefit them.

“You shouldn’t have to blackmail people into doing things that are for their own good.”

Nanjala Nyabola from Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era is Transforming Kenya

In order to demonstrate proper legislative stability and good intent, the Kenyan government must sensitize the Kenyan people regarding explicit measures implemented in order to ensure that their data will be secure. Such cooperative efforts would build trust between the government and the public and promote further collaboration and compliance.

The Kenyan government has a duty to ensure that such an identification system is also accessible to all individuals, even those of minority communities. Despite their vast potential for the expansion of social services, biometric identification systems can often digitize discrimination. In order to prevent such possibilities, the Kenyan government must look to its own national motto, harambee.

Harambee is the Kenyan tradition of community development that literally translates to “all pull together” in Swahili. It can be difficult to implement given the incredibly heterogeneous nature of Kenya; Indians, Nubians, and Kenyans of Somali descent alike have all contributed to Kenyan history.  Some human rights advocates argue these individuals face hurdles in becoming registered, often being asked to provide documentation that would delay the processing of their identification, and ultimately render them unable to obtain the social services they would need to progress further in life.

The Kenyan government can create a biometric system of identification that appeals to a more civic nationalism in which all groups are equally welcome in contributing to Kenya’s diversity. By echoing harambee and ensuring that the parents of newborn children are able to obtain birth certificates in order to enable their children to be educated in the future and contribute to the Kenyan workforce, the Kenyan government can play a hand in improving its own future.

Kenyan students participate in a joint learning event by the World Bank-USAID Inclusive Education for Africa Trust Fund, UNICEF, and the Kenyan Ministry of Education. (Deepti Samant Raja/ World Bank)

In our increasingly digitized world, biometrics certainly has an incredible potential to champion vulnerable populations and streamline social services in an accessible way, but it is important to acknowledge the need for robust data privacy dialogue and inclusivity in order to pave the way for technological innovations.

The Kenyan government has a chance to do exactly that.