Kenya says new digital IDs that civil rights groups say exclude minorities are lawful

iStock/omersukrugoksu(LONDON) — Kenya’s high court ruled on Thursday that the government may forge ahead with its controversial plan to assign all citizens a unique identification number, but the process must be done under a comprehensive regulatory framework that addresses concerns over exclusion and privacy.

Three Nairobi-based civil rights groups — the Nubian Rights Forum, the Kenya Human Rights Commission and the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights — sued the Kenyan government last year over its introduction and implementation of the National Integrated Identity Management System (NIIMS), which would register each citizen under a biometric ID that will be required to access public services essential to everyday life, such as going to school, getting health care, registering to vote, obtaining a driver’s license, opening a bank account and even getting married.

The Kenyan government had already begun collecting biometric data for the NIIMS. During voluntary registration drives last year, nearly 40 million people had their fingerprints and faces scanned, according to local media reports. The NIIMS would then integrate and consolidate the biometrics into one digital database to produce a unique ID number, known locally as Huduma Namba. Adults must provide a national identity card in order to be issued the new ID, while children must have their birth certificates.

Yasah Musa, program manager of the Nubian Rights Forum, told ABC News that Thursday’s ruling handed down by the High Court of Kenya recognizes “the genuine risk of exclusion.”

“The court has ordered for the government to move forward, they must put in place comprehensive regulations to address exclusion before they can continue implementation,” Musa said. “This portion of the judgment is essential to protect the rights of millions of Kenyans from ethnic or religious minority groups who face discrimination in their applications for national identity cards, leading to severe delays or denials.”

ABC News has reached out to the Kenyan government for comment on the lawsuit and court ruling.

The legislation introducing the NIIMS states that the program aims to “create an efficient identity system that will present opportunities for fiscal savings, development of the digital economy and enhanced public and private sector service delivery.” However, the civil rights groups claim in the lawsuit that implementing NIIMS would disenfranchise members of Kenya’s minority groups, such as the Nubians, who already face difficulties and discrimination when applying for the documents required to get the new ID.

Many minorities have failed to register under the current system because they don’t have national identity cards or birth certificates, “hence are disadvantaged by the uneven playing field as far as implementation of the NIIMS system is concerned,” the petition states.

“Without an ID card, a Kenyan can’t register for Huduma Namba,” Musa told ABC News, “so [they] would be locked out of the system and access to related rights and services completely.”

Kenya is home to nearly 50 million people, an incredibly diverse population that encompasses dozens of different ethnic groups. The Nubians were first brought to Kenya from modern-day Sudan and southern Egypt by British colonial authorities more than a century ago.

Still today, decades after the East African nation gained its independence from Britain, the Nubians’ descendants in Kenya are considered outsiders and struggle to be recognized as full citizens. Other minorities have faced similar treatment, according to civil rights groups.

The lawsuit also contends that the legislation was introduced and passed without consulting the public, and that there are no adequate or proper safeguards for protection of the biometric data collected under the NIIMS, which infringes on the constitutional right to privacy.

The court ruled Thursday that there was public participation before the NIIMS was rolled out because there were advertisements making Kenyans aware of the program.

However, the court agreed with the civil rights groups that the collection of DNA and GPS data for the purposes of identification is “intrusive and unnecessary,” thus deeming it unconstitutional. The court ruled that all the other information collected from citizens by the government was in fact necessary.

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