Civil society achieves change, but risks still remain in Kenya's new biometric ID system

News & Analysis
Kenya colonial ID

Today, the Kenyan Government is starting their biometric registration exercise known as NIIMS, leading to the issuing of Huduma Namba ID numbers. Along with our colleagues and partners in the human rights community in Kenya, we are very worried about the ramifications of this system for people in Kenya, and particularly for marginalised communities.

Thanks to the hard work and timely action of civil society in Kenya, the judiciary has intervened at the last minute. A court ruling on Monday made some important concessions on the roll-out of this registration exercise, pending a later ruling on the system. These included: registration is no longer mandatory; and people cannot be denied government services for not registering. DNA and the GPS location of people's homes, in the original proposal, now will not be collected.

These court-imposed measures are in place pending further hearings. The organisations who brought this challenge - including the Nubian Rights Forum and the Kenya Human Rights Commission - are to be congratulated in achieving these concessions to date. Some of those worst affected by the identity scheme - for example, the Nubian community - have played a leading role in this case. There are communities in Kenya - including the Kenyan Nubian and Somali communities - who face additional hurdles and scrutiny when establishing their citizenship and applying for identity documents. They are deeply concerned that the introduction of NIIMS will deepen their exclusion.

The system remains extremely concerning. We share the concerns of others over the nature of the system and the purposes to which it will be put. The process of developing the system has been far from the democratic ideal: it was created by a few lines in a Miscellaneous Powers Act, and was not subject to public consultation. This is the unfortunate replication of a lack of democratic processes in the introduction of identity systems that we've seen all over the world.

Identity systems, even when they are claimed to be voluntary, are core to systems of control that result in severe interferences with freedom and dignity.The safeguards that must be in place before any identity system is implemented are rarely present, and this is certainly a key concern in Kenya. A data protection act is not a panacea for all the problems with NIMS, but it is a nescessary precursor; a data protection bill is making slow progress in Kenya, in stark contrast with speed which this system was approved and deployed. Why is it that establishing protections for a population takes an age, whereas a privacy-threatening ID system can be passed and implemented in a matter of months?

The challenges by civil society continue and hopefully, the identity system will now receive the scrutiny that it deserves. The consequences of an identity system can be huge, and potentially grave. It's essential that the purposes for the system are interogated; and claims made about the system are evidenced. As we've seen elsewhere, the consequences for those who do not have access to an identity granted by the system are huge. This is strongly coming to the fore in the Kenyan case, given the stateless population and those who have problems with citizenship. With the consequences for the privacy and human rights of all Kenyans at stake, it is time to reconsider NIIMS.

[Image: Raphael.langart]

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