Kenya spent millions of dollars to roll out digital IDs named Huduma Namba. However, the project has since been discontinued, and the new government thinks it has a shot at rolling out similar digital IDs, but with additional features.

To enhance the lives of its people, the Kenyan government is currently creating a new digital identification system. This system aims to offer citizens and residents a unique and easily verifiable digital identifier. By implementing this digital ID system, the government intends to boost service delivery and promote financial inclusion for all. As part of the initiative, Kenya is also developing a robust policy framework, which could be an amendment to the ICT Policy 2019 to ensure the proper utilisation and regulation of digital identities. This framework encompasses a set of principles and standards that govern the collection, storage, usage, and sharing of personal information, with the utmost emphasis on safeguarding individuals’ privacy and security.

If the new Unique Personal Identifier (UPI) sounds familiar, you are not wrong because it is. The previous government attempted to launch digital IDs for Kenyans named Huduma Namba, also known as the National Integrated Identity Management System (NIIMS). However, the exercise was marred by court cases and overall distrust from Kenyans as the state failed to fully explain the merits of the IDs. This issue was also echoed by Kenya’s ICT and Digital Economy minister Eliud Owalo, who reiterated that Huduma Namba was never really explained to the people of Kenya in a past TV interview.

“The Huduma Namba was a well-intended initiative, but the process of introducing it into the marketplace was wrong. Whenever you are introducing something new of that nature, you need to explain to Kenyans why it is imperative to introduce such an initiative. They need to understand what it entails, and you need to seek stakeholders’ views. And one of the important stakeholders is the Kenyan public,” said Eliud Owalo in an interview.

Why it matters

The UPI will be crucial throughout a child’s educational journey, serving as their primary and secondary school identification numbers. As the child grows and reaches the age of 18, the UPI seamlessly transitions into their official national identity number.

Also, the UPI will have multi-faceted utility, serving as the child’s National Health Insurance Fund (NHIF) number, the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) number, driving license number, and ultimately, even their death certificate number. This robust integration will make the digital ID a central and unifying identifier for various essential aspects of a Kenyan’s life.  

It should also be remembered that the development means that Huduma Namba is no more. The project cost the previous government over KES 10 billion (over $72 million). It had issued the Huduma cards to Kenyans, but more than half of the registered Kenyans did not pick them up.

Estonian ICT firms developed the technical parts of Huduma Namba. The European country, known for its robust ICT sector and popular apps such as Bolt, has since set an ICT base in Kenya, with the plan of working with local ICT firms. One of Estonia’s IT companies may also handle the new digital ID roll-out.

Data protection 

The implementation of UPIs in digital ID systems carries risks such as privacy concerns, data breaches, and identity theft. In the case of identity theft, resolution mechanisms need to be established. Exclusion and discrimination based on personal characteristics may occur, and hacking and cyber attacks threaten sensitive data. Individuals without a UPI may be denied certain services since the government may make it a mandatory ID for all people, as it did with Huduma Namba.The Huduma Namba case highlights the complex issues surrounding digital IDs and privacy rights. While digital IDs have the potential to enhance government services and financial inclusion, concerns about privacy and security arise due to the collection and storage of personal information, an issue that could be addressed with the policy, as mentioned earlier, that is under development. Lastly, the court’s decision to require a Data Protection Impact Assessment shows the importance of addressing these concerns before implementing the system.

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