Maisha Namba: Maybe Kenya should stay off the digital ID fad?

Introduction

The exponential growth of digital identity systems has emerged as a focal point in the debate over civil rights and individual liberties. Kenya’s recent attempt, marked by the introduction of the Maisha Namba in conjunction with the Maisha Card, digital signature, and the master national population register, has raised serious concerns about the implications of this complex framework. This exposition begins a careful investigation into the hazardous depths encapsulated by the Maisha Namba. It also initiates an extensive analysis of the overarching issue of surveillance, which is spurred by this unique digital identity paradigm. In this context, it is critical to contrast these concerns with the Kenyan government’s record of violations of fundamental rights. Furthermore, this dissertation’s argument is to elucidate painstakingly how the convergence and aggregation of data provided by this comprehensive system may serve as a powerful catalyst for amplifying dystopian prospects and the loss of individual liberties.

The Maisha Namba and the new identity system: A new identity system or a new exposure system?

Introducing the Maisha Namba marks a watershed moment in Kenya’s approach to identifying its citizens. The Maisha Namba and its corollary parts, most notably the Maisha Card, represent the birth of an all-encompassing digital identification apparatus set to permeate myriad areas of life inside Kenya’s geopolitical landscape. The fundamental revolutionary consequences of this digital identity regime outperform its traditional forerunners, most notably birth certificates and national identity cards. In any case, it poses questions about the difference between the Maisha Namba and the much-derided Huduma Namba, which many in the current administration opposed on various grounds, including privacy and unmitigated citizen data aggregation. To further compound the issue, the state is also yet to publish rules around the issue. Regardless, while the state has yet to publish the rules under which it will effectuate the new identity system, state officials and policymakers’ pronouncements make it clear that the state sees the new identity system as a priority.

The envisioned Maisha card is meant to have a variety of features and details. However, for this article, the envisioned microprocessor embedded in the card is one of the more questionable features from a privacy standpoint. While policymakers have argued that such a microprocessor will be impossible to compromise, this appears nothing short of misinformed bravado. In the same vein, the fact that a single Namba is envisioned to be used from cradle to grave, serving as the birth certificate, national identity, and possibly even used for national examinations, as a single identifier is further problematic. Such an amalgamation will be a privacy nightmare because there will not be a variance between the various identifiers. One need only have one of the identifiers to steal the identity, or violate the privacy of the Namba’s owner. Further, there have been indications that it will also be necessary to access government services, including the National Health Insurance Fund (NHIF), the National Social Security Fund (NSSF), and services related to the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA). It may even be used for private and commercial transactions such as banking. While the current national identity card serves these purposes as well, incorporating digitized biometric data provides the most danger as it not only becomes more comprehensive information, but its digitization makes access by third parties a more inviting proposition.

State surveillance facilitated by big data

However, while the question of data privacy and security is important, for a fair and democratic society, the question of constant, unwarranted and illegal state surveillance is also as important. In this regard, the United Nations Human Rights Council noted that digital identity systems, such as the Maisha Namba system, have human rights implications, including covert surveillance.1 As this system collects massive amounts of personal data, it inevitably improves the government’s ability to monitor citizens systematically and comprehensively. Big data analytics, backed up by the Maisha Namba‘s vast data stockpile, allows the state to examine patterns and trends that go beyond the traditional scope of surveillance, encompassing not only individual behavior but also social dynamics. Yet, the Kenyan state appears hell-bent on effectuating such a system, needlessly violating its citizenry’s privacy and other rights.

The Maisha Namba‘s potential significance in this surveillance paradigm is more than individual tracking; it encompasses wider social, economic, and political phenomena. The interconnection of data generated from many sources and curated within the Master National Population Register combines to produce a formidable tool for detecting subtle societal shifts. Such a data compilation and analysis can be useful for the provision of public services, including security and social policy. However, such discernment can be used for various purposes, including restricting political and social dissent, manipulating public opinion, and strategically allocating resources.2 In this environment, the threat of a surveillance state looms large, in which the government holds unprecedented insight into the lives of its citizens, beyond the domains of traditional governance, into the dominion of omnipresent control.

Data aggregation and manipulation

While allegedly designed to improve governance and service delivery, the comprehensive digital identification system is not without risk of abuse resulting from aggregation for manipulative purposes. The Maisha Namba’s intrinsic aptitude for data aggregation is the linchpin of its surveillance capability. The system’s ability to concentrate personal data points, ranging from biometric information to socioeconomic indicators, presents it as a data aggregation model. The aggregation leads to highly comprehensive that state and other malcontents can access easily. The ramifications go far beyond basic identification, including the possibility of individualized governmental action and manipulation, as digital identity may make people whom the state wants to manipulate or persecute.3

 

As social media scandals such as Cambridge Analytica have shown, large amounts of data, digitized and easily accessible to politicians via a few clicks, will lend itself to abuse. In this perspective, the Maisha Namba represents a digital identification and a social control tool capable of moulding individual and collective fates via an algorithmic apparatus powered by data aggregation.

 

The Maisha Namba’s data aggregation jeopardizes the basic concept of privacy based on an individual’s sovereignty over their personal information if a state’s gaze reaches the most private nooks and crannies of citizens’ lives, effectively rendering privacy and effectual decision-making at the individual level obsolete. In this apocalyptic dystopia, the government will suffocate opposition with surgical precision, as it has a detailed and easily accessible dossier on each citizen, complete with vulnerabilities and tendencies. As the state can selectively target and stifle dissenting voices, suppressing criticism or divergence from the government’s mandated narrative becomes simple.

 

Similarly, access to crucial resources, a cornerstone of individual well-being, is similarly vulnerable to manipulation. Control over citizen data by the government permits the orchestration of access to key services and resources by politicians who can predict, to an almost God-like level, the preferences of individual and collective citizens. Thus, the threat of resource allocation based on political allegiance or compliance with government dictates becomes evident. The possibility of discrimination and favouritism, aided by data-driven decision-making, casts a long shadow over equal resource allocation.

Give the state an inch in privacy, and they will take a mile

Matt Salmon, an American small government conservative, once stated that granting the government an inch guarantees it will grab a mile. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the question of data and privacy rights. As the state expands, it gains a voracious appetite for citizen property. In the era of Big Data and AI, personal data is one of the most important properties one can possess. Thus, privacy experts are duly afraid that the identity management system will not be the end goal, especially given the continuous state need for surveillance. The possibility of evolving the identity system to a social scoring and credit system akin to the Chinese one is a nightmare. In such a case, it will allow the government to track every aspect of an individual’s life. In a society where every behaviour, transaction, and association are scrutinized, the illusion of freedom fades, giving way to the tyranny of ubiquitous surveillance.

The issue is already apparent in the call to amend the Data Protection Act, a well-crafted legislation that follows global best practices, to ensure that some government entities do not have to follow the procedures laid down under the Act. The heart of the issue is the potential consequences of such exemptions. By allowing certain government organizations to deviate from established procedural rules, there is a real danger of gradually eroding the basic principles of data protection and privacy rights. This deterioration, in turn, creates an environment conducive to the misuse and abuse of personal data, free of the safeguards previously regarded as sacred.

Private sector surveillance as well?

The Maisha Card’s multifarious nature, notably its role as a conduit for access to public and private sector services, unfurls a tapestry of issues that may lead to private surveillance. While seemingly promising efficiency and security, the Maisha Card’s ability to effortlessly integrate into numerous dimensions of social interactions throws a shadow of pervasive private surveillance. For example, the cradle-to-grave single identity system will inevitably integrate issues such as health and education data. For verification purposes, digital identification systems frequently need users to supply a plethora of personal information. Private businesses, notably technology firms and internet service providers, have a vested interest in gathering and aggregating this data. They can utilize it to build detailed user profiles that include behaviours, preferences, and online activities.

Furthermore, some private firms engage in “surveillance capitalism”. They make money by constantly tracking and monetizing user data. The more extensive a digital identity system, the more information these organizations can extract and commercialize, further incentivizing monitoring. In this regard, users have limited control over the data gathered and shared by digital identification systems in some situations. Complex terms of service agreements and authorization documents can be opaque, leaving users uninformed of the extent to which their personal information is being used for private entity surveillance purposes.

Conclusion

Kenya should not make the mistake of ensuring that we can trade the protection of human rights for the innovation promised by digitisation of the national identity system in Kenya. While innovation and efficiency are important drivers of technological progress, they should not come at the expense of fundamental rights and freedoms. As we traverse the intricacies of these digital identification systems, we must be cautious in protecting privacy, data protection, and individual autonomy. It is up to governments, regulators, and technology developers to strike a fine balance, ensuring that innovation and convenience do not weaken the core ideals of human rights and civil freedoms. The way forward necessitates a deliberate and ethical approach that capitalizes on the benefits of digital identification systems while maintaining individuals’ dignity and rights in the digital age. Maisha Namba does not offer such reassurances.