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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

It is critical we get it right on Huduma Namba registration

The publication of the Huduma Namba Bill 2019 and announcement of a two-week window crack for public views deserves our collective and undivided attention. The publication follows the accelerated national drive to have Kenyans register under the National Integrated Identity Management System (NIIMS) in April and May. What are the implications of the ongoing legal case, the Data Protection Bills and the privacy of our personal data and access to essential services?

Since this column called for national debate on digitising personal information and the right to privacy on February 23, much has changed. According to the Interior Ministry, no less than 31 million Kenyans registered for Huduma Namba in one of the most coordinated drives in Kenyan history. While unverified by independent sources, it is indisputable that large numbers of the public rushed to meet the first deadline.

The rush to register was deliberately provoked by several State Officers who publicly threatened to bar Kenyans from applying for passports, SIM cards and a variety of other services without them. Fear was a factor for most, but so too, is ignorance of the dangers of big data. An opinion poll at the time that found less than 5 per cent of Kenyans were worried how their personal data might be stored, used or sold to third parties.

In this context, Justices Korir, Nyamweya and Ngugi April 1 ruling that the Huduma Namba registration could proceed as a voluntary exercise without DNA testing, GPS data collection or any restrictions to the rights of Kenyans and foreigners was a welcome public interest victory. The 2019 Bill contradicts the court judgement.

Seventeen days later, the Cabinet finally moved to approve the Data Protection Bill and Policy. Developed after receiving 700 submissions from the public, both Bill and policy, this Bill is before the National Assembly. This Bill is sometimes confused with a parallel Data Protection Bill (2018) sponsored by Senator Gideon Moi in the Senate.

It is premature to pronounce myself on this Huduma Namba Bill. It requires careful scrutiny, vigorous informed public dialogue and engagement in this two-week crack of a window and afterwards when it comes before the National Assembly. Some initial observations could guide this process.

The Bill seeks to fundamentally overhaul the registration of everyone. Whether you are abroad or resident in Kenya, a child or adult, citizen, refugee or foreigner, you have an interest in what happens with this Bill. The 14 days notice given for participation and submission of views must have the undivided attention of the public, digital policy analysts and constitutional lawyers.

If this Bill goes through in its current form, you will not be able to marry, vote, pay taxes, own, sell land or a car or transact any other investment without a Huduma Namba. Universal health-care and education facilities and even private services like a sim card or a loan will be placed out of your reach. You will be legally required to keep your physical, telephone and email address updated with the state.

Your very citizenship is reliant on having a Huduma Namba. The Bill sets stiff penalties for fraudulent applications as well as mis-use of your data by Government officers. It also empowers the Principal Secretary to deny or revoke your registration and by implication, your very identity before the state. 

The argument that this is only replacing our national identity cards is a shallow interpretation of the Bill. Experiences from India and China are instructive. Invasive mass registration programmes that do not protect the privacy of personal data are often used against citizens by Governments, private corporations and foreign states. The Jamaican court recently struck out a similar law on these grounds.

For all these reasons. Kenyans must speak up at the Public Forum at the Kenya School of Government in Nairobi on July 31 and submit their views to the Interior Ministry copied to human rights and governance organisations before August 2, 2019. To allay remaining public fears, the Executive can likewise fast-track the Data Protection Bill (2019) in the National Assembly.

In addition, residents should share their views through the Dokeza phone app managed by Mzalendo Trust. Mzalendo Trust has over a decade of impartially informing our parliamentarians on matters of public interest. It is critical we get this right, not just for this generation and Government but the generations and governments to come.

First published Saturday Standard, July 20, 2019. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group


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