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Digital ID key in Kenya’s digital transformation agenda: Eliud Owalo

Digital ID key in Kenya’s digital transformation agenda: Eliud Owalo
(Dr. Joseph Atick, Eliud Owalo, and Julius Bitok on stage at ID4Africa 2023)

In Kenya, the idea of a national identity comes with a colonial history that involved exploitation and control. The kipande was an early, brutal instance of biometrics being used for oppression: an ID document, including fingerprints and work history, that British colonizers forced Kenyan men over 15 to wear around their necks in a metal case, to control and restrict their movements.

Despite those historical associations, a national digital ID that consolidates citizens’ personal data into a single source is both necessary and inevitable. So argues the country’s Cabinet Secretary for Information, Communications and the Digital Economy, Eliud Owalo, in a recent opinion piece for The Standard.

“In my estimation, the current pace of technological advancement now automating and digitalizing every conceivable service and process will render analogue paper IDs obsolete by 2030,” Owalo writes. “The old way of doing things is dying. Those who do not change with the rest of the world must accept to become irrelevant.”

Owalo’s points against physical IDs are numerous and familiar to anyone who has ever fumbled with multiple identification cards.

“We variously carry up to twenty-five different forms of identification, to prove that we are whom we claim to be,” he writes. “Almost every new critical service requires a new set of data from us, leading to the issuance of an additional special purpose ID. Our ID items today include a national ID card, NSSF and NHIF cards, employers’ ID, passport, birth certificate, marriage certificate, driver’s license, academic certificates, health insurance card, bank card, disability card, birth certificate, and passport photo, among others. In many cases, you are required to carry them in triplicate copies, each certified by an advocate, or notary public.”

“Woe unto you should you lose any of these documents.”

Biometrics provides a single source of truth

Furthermore, he says, paper IDs are outdated in their vulnerability to fraud. Bank scams, identity theft and forged travel and work documents all erode trust in analogue IDs. “An ID that is read and interpreted by the naked eye and authenticated via human judgement across hundreds of thousands of agents, is increasingly open to human error, abuse, fraud or manipulation.”

To simplify an excruciatingly complex and often slow process of constant re-authentication, Owalo suggests “collapsing all available authenticated foundational ID data about the individual into a single digital ID that provides biometric authentication.” A single digital ID with embedded biometrics is both more stable and secure than paper ID, in that it provides a centralized source of truth, and more fluid, in that it can be modified without the need to reissue a physical card. Owalo likens it to “a social curriculum vitae” that “will be continuously updated to capture your changing progressive life events and statuses.”

Citing the World Bank’s Sustainable Development Goal Target 16.9 – “to provide legal identity for all, including birth registration” by 2030 – the Cabinet Secretary ultimately frames the issue of digital IDs as a matter of democratic access and equality.

“With Kenya now digitalizing all Government services by mid-2023 and almost every financial service and business process being digitalized, you will be required to be authenticated remotely for services virtually everywhere – in government and outside,” he writes. “Digital ID can promote increased and more inclusive access to education, healthcare, and labour markets. It can aid safe migration and also contribute to greater levels of civic participation.”

There are still plenty of ways in which biometrics and digital ID can be misused. But Owalo says that, unlike the colonial ID system, which used the kipande to enforce racist hierarchies, “a modern-day ID is a point of convergence between the citizen as a rights holder and the government as a duty bearer.”

“The transition from analogue to digital ID is key in Kenya’s digital transformation agenda,” he writes, “because it carries our citizens along with us in this journey whose time has come.”

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