Kenya plans to tackle identity theft with an improved biometric system

Kenya digital identity card

The Kenyan government is concluding plans to tackle identity theft and other related crimes using improved biometric systems. This was revealed by the Cabinet Secretary of Kenya’s Interior and National Administration ministry, Kithure Kindiki.

Kindiki, who outlined the plans for an automated biometric identification system, said that the system will also help build a comprehensive identity verification system for the East African country.

Currently, we have an ID system in Kenya that is semi-automated. Going forward we are looking at upgrading the automated fingerprint identification system,” he says. 

Kithure Kindiki

This latest endeavour represents Kenya’s efforts to leverage the digital transformation trend to improve service delivery for all citizens. Unlike the current biometric identity system which Kindiki says features a minimal percentage of automation, the forthcoming technology will no longer use only fingerprints as an identifier. Instead, it’ll include additional security features like iris scan facial recognition. This, Kindiki believes, will strengthen the country’s identification system against security threats. 

Kindiki also mentioned that there were plans to migrate Kenya to a digital identity system that would feature a machine-readable chip and QR code. The electronic ID card, according to Kindiki, will allow web-based ID authentication. This would be similar to Nigeria’s mobile ID which comes with a QR code that can be scammed to verify one’s identity. 

Kindiki is optimistic that the web-based authentication feature will evolve into a “universal, unique personal identifier that the state will give to all newborns in Kenya and it becomes their ID when they attain the age of majority at 18 years.” 

This update coincides with Kenya’s goal of digitizing every essential service. Yesterday at the ID4Africa Augmented General Meeting held in Nairobi, President William Ruto shared that his government hopes to “complete the digitization exercise by the end of this year.” Currently, 5,000 out of 7,000 essential services have been computerized. With 7 months remaining in 2023, the East African nation could accomplish this task. 

Identity theft, the act of using someone else’s personal information for fraudulent purposes, is popular in Kenya. Identity theft can manifest in various ways including SIM card swaps, fake phone calls, phishing, and Wi-Fi snooping. Mobile money’s boom in Kenya has created a breeding ground for criminals engaging in this activity. In February, 8 men belonging to a gang were arrested for stealing over Sh500 million from mobile money consumers

Aside from mobile money’s increased presence, emerging technologies like cryptocurrency have also inspired criminal elements to target crypto users. Through email phishing, a college gang stole credit card details from unsuspecting Kenyans and used them to buy Bitcoin. Unfortunately, this issue is not isolated to Kenya as the number of cases in Africa grew by 26% according to Smile Identity’s State of KYC in Africa report

Read also: Nigeria’s Prembly partners Namibia’s financial regulator to build a digital identity framework for the country

Will this differ from Huduma Namba

This isn’t Kenya’s first attempt at developing a digital identity system, but perhaps it would like to forget about Huduma Namba and its failure. Conceived by former President Uhuru Kenyatta, Huduma Namba, otherwise known as National Integrated Identity Management System (NIIMS) was intended to provide both citizens that register and those at birth with a unique personal identification number. 

The program granted the government “the power to collect biometric data, including GPS locations of home addresses, DNA, and land registration numbers of citizens.” It also harmonizes other registers containing people’s details. 

However, the scheme generated plenty of controversy, particularly in the area of data protection and the penalty for those who do not enroll. Although it states how it would collect citizen’s data, it doesn’t shed light on critical questions like:

  • Who manages the data? 
  • What data can be accessed and by whom? 
  • Will citizens give consent to the data being shared? 

In October 2021, a High Court in Kenya tagged Huduma Namba as illegal, adding that it clashed with the nation’s Data Protection Act. Section 31 of the Act states “Where a processing operation is likely to result in high risk to the rights and freedoms of a data subject, by virtue of its nature, scope, context and purposes, a data controller or data processor shall, prior to the processing, carry out a data protection impact assessment.” 

A data protection impact assessment is performed to “identify and mitigate against any data protection related risks arising from a new project.” Failure to do this not only increases the chances of data breaches but goes against existing laws. 

Interestingly, the government had already issued cards to citizens before this ruling so it paused. It was instructed by the court to carry out an impact assessment test before issuing the Huduma Namba cards. 

This marked the beginning of the program’s end with citizens’ failure to collect the cards and limited public awareness playing significant rules too. Funding dropped from Sh680 to Sh106 million this year as the Ruto-led government is now focused on a different national identity scheme. 

What Kenya can do to guarantee this policy’s success 

Any policy, no matter how many advantages it promises, is doomed to fail if wrongly planned and implemented. Before launching the new digital ID, a great place to start is to embark on adequate public sensitization campaigns. 

Whenever you’re 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. You need to seek stakeholders’ views through the various stakeholder affairs so that you get their buy-in,” says Eliud Owalo – the Cabinet Secretary for the ICT and Digital Economy Ministry. 

As Kenya considers incorporating a digital ID card, the country must learn from the previous project’s mistake and strive for a different outcome. The scheme can positively impact the economy, extend critical services to citizens, and stave off fraudsters. Therefore, it must be done properly.  

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