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Data Heist! Huduma Number and the right to privacy in Kenya (Part One)

Mid this year, while drawing activist ire, the Government of Kenya embarked on a nationwide mass registration for a Kenyan equivalent of a social security number named the “Huduma Number”. According to the Government the Huduma Number is supposed to serve as a digital ‘single source of truth’ of identity of all persons residing in Kenya. Unlike a Kenyan national ID or birth certificate that is issued to only Kenyan Citizens, Huduma Number will be issued to all persons residing in Kenya, including foreigners.

Despite efforts by Government to get citizens on board the registration process, it was not without controversy.There continues to be some fear and concerns around the implications of the Huduma Number and the constitutional right to privacy.These fears were further heightened by the Interior Principal Secretary,Karanja Kibicho’s admission that it intended to share the information collected across state agencies without prior notification to the affected person. Article 31 of the Constitution of Kenya provides that every person has the right to privacy, which includes the right not to have information relating to their family or private affairs unnecessarily required or revealed.

It remains unclear what will guide the discretion of the government to share information about a particular person and,what would be the limits (if any) to which this information can be used by the government agency.Globally, the concept behind the Huduma Number is not new.Both the Indian and Chinese governments have implemented similar systems in their countries.In India, it is called Aaadharwhile in China it is called the Social Credit System.

Aadhaar was introduced in the Upper House of the Indian Parliament on December 2010 by National Identification Authority of India Bill. It works as a twelve digit unique identification number issued to the citizens of India by the central government.The issuance and management of Aadhaar come under the authority of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). Like the Huduma number,Aadhaar records and verifies the details of every resident and includes demographic and biometric data.Like Huduma Number, Aadhaar was not meant to replace the already existing identification documents like driving licences or passport. It serves instead as a one-time identification number.This information is not only to the benefit of State agencies, but also to financial institutions and telecom companies which use Aadhaaras a Know-Your-Customer (KYC) verification mode,and use it to create and maintain customer profiles.

Just like in Kenya, Aadhaar was also challenged in Indian Courts; and like their Kenyan counterparts the Court ruled that the Indian Government does not have the right to make the number mandatory.

On the other hand, the Chinese Social Credit System has been sometimes described as an instrument used by the Chinese Government to intrude to its Citizens lives.The idea for Social Credit System in China began in 2007, and then as an opt-in system in 2014.One of the major causes of apprehension over the system,is that it is expected to grow to a level where there is information sharing between Public and Private Sector actors such as Ali Baba.Constructive Compulsion Because the Government has attached certain essential services to the possession of a Huduma Number, it has constructively made registration for the number compulsory.This means that the Kenyan Government and its agencies effectively have data on millions of residents at the click of a button.It is inevitable therefore,that the Constitutional right to privacy may be potentially violated on multiple levels: access by the State and within its agencies;between the State and Private Sector Players for their financial gain, and access by malevolent third party actors (perhaps even other States) to the detriment of personal and national security.

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