Digital IDs Make Systemic Bias Worse

Last week, the Kenyan High Court blocked the country’s new digital ID initiative from moving forward in its current form. Other nations’ judiciaries have taken on similar biometric ID programs—the Indian Supreme Court set limits on the subcontinent’s massive Aadhaar program, which has scanned the irises of over a billion people. But never before has a court halted a digital ID scheme on the grounds that it could exclude a segment of the population.It’s high time. Kenya is one of many countries (including the Philippines, Nigeria, and Mexico) looking to digitize their national ID systems. The privacy concerns related to digital ID are well known; they were the focus of India’s Supreme Court ruling, for example. Less known is the way these digital systems are often being built, as in Kenya, atop discriminatory regimes.

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Vivek Maru, Laura Goodwin, Aisha Khagai, and Mustafa Mahmoud work with Namati. Namati helps convene the Global Legal Empowerment Network, which is open to people everywhere. Vivek is co-author of Community Paralegals and the Pursuit of Justice.

We should all be worried. Tech-utopian schemes don’t make systemic bias disappear. They make it worse.

Kenya’s current national ID system is not unlike the Jim Crow South in the United States: old, analog, and ugly. Take a typical example, a house cleaner and single mother whom we’ll call Ziya. (She asked us to change her name to protect her from retaliation.) All her life, Ziya has lived in a one-room mud house in Nairobi’s biggest slum. Like one of us (Mustafa), she belongs to Kenya’s Nubian community. Her ancestors were conscripted from what is now Sudan to fight in World War I, and were then resettled to Nairobi by the British empire, over a hundred years ago.
Ziya applied for a national ID card as soon as she turned 18. Most Kenyans barely think about the application, and receive a card in a month. But the Nubians are one of several tribes, all of them Muslim, altogether comprising 5 million people, who often undergo a discriminatory “vetting” process in order to obtain ID cards.

If you belong to one of those tribes, you end up waiting months to appear in front of a vetting committee. You may have to produce an extra set of supporting documents—even documents from your grandparents or great-grandparents—and your process can take years.

Ziya applied for an ID in 2013 and received an appointment with the vetting committee in 2014. The committee asked for her birth certificate. Many Kenyans don’t have birth certificates; the system for issuing them has long been inadequate. When Ziya couldn’t produce hers, the vetting committee sent her away. She then visited the Civil Registry to ask for a copy of her birth certificate, but a registrar told her that her records weren’t in the system. So she signed up for another appointment with the vetting committee.

Two paralegals in Kibera, Nairobi's largest slum.Photograph: Noor Khamis/Namati
This time, the committee instructed Ziya to apply afresh for a birth certificate. She went back to Civil Registry, but the registrar told her that because she was over 18, she needed to provide a copy of her ID card, which of course she did not have. At wits end, Ziya waited for the chance to appear for vetting once more, but the committee was unwilling to listen or consider alternatives.