Catalyst – Kenya Biometric Identification Systems
By Joyce Keeley
This past week Kenya witnessed its 17th explosion throughout the country since the Westgate attack, where al Shabaab terrorists killed over 67 people and injured nearly 200 others in a popular shopping mall.
Much of the recent terrorist activity has gone largely unnoticed in the international media but the Kenyan government has taken drastic steps to crack down on what they see as the root problem. In a recently launched initiative, Operation Usalama Watch is an attempt to identify illegal aliens residing in the country and subsequently eliminate the people and places the Kenyan government believes to be harboring terrorists.
In the search for undocumented aliens, Kenyan security forces have primarily targeted Somalis as several of the attacks have been linked to al Shabaab terrorists operating out of Somalia. Most of the Somalis living in Kenya, both with and without documentation, actually fled Somalia because of these same terrorists but a very small and radicalized minority has aided al Shabaab in these attacks.
In response, Kenyan security forces have been indiscriminately rounding up “anyone who looks Somali” and detaining them for up to a week in overcrowded jails and the city stadium. From here, their documents are processed, except for those who weren’t even allowed to retrieve passports and IDs as they were forced into trucks from mosques and on the streets. They are then either deported, forced to go to a refugee camp, or allowed to go free, as in the case of the many Kenyan citizens who “look Somali.” Journalists and activists have reported massive human rights abuses including looting, assault, and rape. Many of those arrested have avoided detention by paying bribes ranging from US$2 to $500.
Operation Usalama Watch has elicited both harsh criticism and enthusiastic support, but the Kenyan government has also proposed another plan using new technology that may offer a more effective solution. The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission is submitting a $92 million project to Parliament to implement a biometric identification system. This would mean creating ID cards with digitally-embedded information linked to a database. Through this system, each person’s unique biological markers (fingerprints, face, hand, and eye scans) as well as name, age, birth date, address, religion, citizenship status, etc. would be recorded and shared across government agencies.
Kenya’s current plan would be to require all citizens 12 years and older to apply for new identification cards, providing fingerprints, photograph, and key information. This card will also be linked to both national insurance and social security number.
Countries which have adopted similar systems include India, Argentina, Belgium, Colombia, Germany, Peru, Spain and Gambia. Biometric identification may be expensive now (and certainly will cost more than the projected US$92 million) but will save long-term costs, especially during elections and census years. Having a digital system in place will no doubt cut down on accounts of corruption and will also provide a more effective system for identifying undocumented people. Rather than profiling “anyone who looks Somali,” an accountable process will be in place for verifying citizenship status.
There are also considerable challenges to implementing such a system. In a country where many Kenyans cannot even purchase a SIM card because of lack of personal identifying documents, biometric identification cards seem unrealistic. Where and how does the Kenyan government expect to coordinate such a mass registration effort? Institutions concerned with upholding Kenya’s constitution have argued that there exists no legal framework to regulate such a system and they worry about how sensitive information will be protected, especially when it is so easily shared across government agencies. Finally, many people in Kenya have lost trust in such technology as the electronic voting equipment used in the 2013 election largely failed and cast millions of votes into doubt.
Perhaps the most important question to raise is whether this new technology really addresses the terrorist attacks plaguing the country? Biometric identification cards may help the Kenyan government to keep closer tabs on its citizens but it certainly doesn’t address the monumental issues of poverty and displacement that radicalize desperate people and push them to join terrorist organizations.