Data protection concerns slow down digital identity initiatives

Executive Chairman of ID4Africa Dr Joseph Atick(left) talking to Communications and Digital Economy Cabinet Secretary Eliud Owalo (centre) and Principal Secretary-State Department of Citizen Services at the Ministry of of Interior and National Administration Prof Julius Bitok during the 7th ID4AFRICA Augmented General Meeting(AGM) at Kenya College of Insurance in Nairobi on May 23,2023.

Photo credit: Evans Habil I Nation Media Group

Governments’ digital identity initiatives in Africa are facing a shortfall in trust which may hamper their rollout as civilians question their intent and safety.

In Kenya, a plan by the government to replace the current second generation Identity cards with a third generation digital ID dubbed Unique Personal Identifier (UPI) is already raising concerns from civil society groups which are calling for sufficient protection of civilian data as well as transparency and inclusivity in the transition process.

The government has however, assured Kenyans that the UPI will not repeat the mistakes made during the rollout of the Huduma Number, which despite consuming billions of taxpayers money, has ended up as another white elephant project with millions of cards lying uncollected in civil registration offices across the country.

Speaking during the kick off of the seventh IF4Africa conference in Nairobi with delegates from 90 countries in attendance, ICT CS Eliud Owalo said that plan is to have all Kenyans on digital identity in the first half of next year.

“We are pursuing this aggressively because in our own view we must transform Kenya into a digital economy, we want to run a paperless government on one hand overally a digital economy which cannot be achieved if we do not have a digital identity,” ICT CS Eliud Owalo said.

He clarified that the government is not trying to reinvent the Huduma Number which he claimed to be different from the UPI-digital identity.

“The Huduma Number’s intention was to put together a population database that was ICT enabled, out interest here is not to develop a population database but to ensure that there is a technological avenue through which government can determine who its doing business with, a virtual ID to consume government services from the comfort of wherever they (citizens/foreigners/refugees) are without having to physically visit government offices,” explained CS Owalo who also questioned the timing for the Huduma Number’s introduction saying that contributed to its failure.

The CS added that one of the pitfalls that befell the Huduma number was inadequate sensitisation, noting that Kenyans were informed of its introduction in a rationale that was not justified in their minds hence they became suspicious of the government’s intentions.

“In my view, one of the other pitfalls is that it was introduced towards the general election, people got suspicious of it and wondered if it was tied to the incoming elections. As a government, we are introducing this issue when we are fresh in government-it is not tied to politics, we need it for the pursuit of our development agenda,” said the CS.

The introduction of the UPI will proceed despite the government facing too many attempts seeking to compromise its security systems with the CS noting that adequate security measures have now been put in place to mitigate against major breaches.

Amongst them is the placing of the back end of the e-citizen platform under the watch of security agencies.

“You cannot stop digitising because you run the risk of exposing yourself to cyber insecurity, that is retrogressive thinking. What we need to do is ensure that as we digitize, correspondingly, we are also building around that digitization process an elaborate risk mitigation framework.”

“In this regard what we have done as a government is establish and operationalize the office of the data commissioner which is charged with the mandate of ensuring that we have adequate levels of data privacy and security. We have also put in place a multifaceted team to ensure that as we digitize they are analysing the emerging trends of cyber security globally to enable us benchmark with best practices and customise to fit our situation,” he said.

Principal Secretary for Immigration and government services Prof Julius Bitok said the Huduma Number also failed due to lack of a proper legal framework which has since been settled.

“There are also quite a number of equipment which were acquired during the implementation of Huduma Number which we feel can be salvaged to help us move quickly towards digital identity,” said Prof Bitok.

He added that the UPI will be used as the railroad to an integrated database that the government is in the process of consolidating to enhance convenience in Kenyans access to government services via the e-citizen platform, ensure secure management of registration data and promote revenue collection.

Fresh registration

The integrated system will contain amongst others the Integrated Population Registration System (IPRS), National Registration Bureau (NRB), Civil Registration Services (CRS) and National Integrated Identity Management System (NIIMS) databases. As at Tuesday morning, 6,200 out of a total 7,800 government services had been digitised.

“We are not planning to do fresh registration, we are going to bridge together all these databases to create a master population register of all persons living and working in Kenya including refugees, for example as we speak right now we have 31.5million registered Kenyans in our NRB database what we just need to do is clean that data and transit it into a national identity that is the UPI,” explained PS Bitok.

The three day conference themed “Digital Identity as public infrastructure” kicked off with close to 2,000 delegates from 90 countries in attendance, majority being senior governments' officials, over 1,000 identity experts and over 100 leading ID technology solution providers who are exhibiting their products at the conference.

ID4Africa Chairman Dr Joseph Atick noted that far too many African nations are lacking a legal digital identity despite its growing global demand as the world transitions into a digital economy.