Written by Abdi Latif Dahir and Carlos Mureithi
Kenya’s high court on Thursday temporarily suspended the country’s new national biometric identity program until the government enacts laws to protect the security of the data and prevent discrimination against minorities.
The government had said the IDs would be required for all Kenyan citizens and foreign residents to access a broad range of rights and services, including health care, education, public housing, voting, marriage licenses and registering mobile phones.
But the court’s three-judge panel announced in proceedings Thursday that it is suspending the digital ID program until the government has in place “an appropriate and comprehensive regulatory framework” that would protect the personal data it collects and safeguard minorities from discrimination. The panel’s 500-page judgment is expected to be released next week.
The decision is a setback for the government, which had already collected data from nearly 40 million Kenyans during a mass registration in April and May last year. The government will now have to pass new legislation — under public scrutiny — to build in protections and implement the biometric program. It is unclear how long that might take.
The program, called the National Integrated Management System, was introduced last year and sought to collect personal and biometric data — including fingerprints, facial photographs and residential addresses — from Kenya’s population of almost 50 million.
But last February, civil rights groups in Kenya challenged the system’s constitutionality, citing concerns over data privacy, inadequate public participation, and the marginalization of minorities, who already find it difficult to get the government documentation they need to register for the biometric IDs.
For decades, racial, religious and ethnic minority groups like Nubians, Somalis and Kenyans of Indian origin have faced obstacles and delays when applying for government-issued papers. Human rights advocates said many members of these communities were turned away from registration centers last spring. The court, however, found that the government took the right steps to introduce the sweeping program, provided the public enough information, and did not coerce people to register.
Still, the program “was rushed” and introduced without proper legislation, said Justice Pauline Nyamweya, one of the judges on the panel.
Kenya passed a data protection law last November, which established a data commission to regulate the processing of personal data. It is not clear when this body will be operational and how much sway it will have over regulating the biometric program.
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