Grace Mutung’u: When identity, technology and politics collide

What do you do in the world of identity?

I work in internet policy advocacy. In 2016 I began a fellowship to look specifically at internet shutdowns during Ugandan and Kenyan elections, as it had become a normal part of sub-Saharan African elections. Over time it’s become more and more apparent that a government would not shut down the internet because they were using it for their own political ends, which has focused my interest in data and how it migrates between private to public data bases and vice versa.Grace Mutung'u

You’ve been giving evidence in a court case in Kenya, what’s been happening with digital identity there?

The case is against the Kenyan government’s digital identity scheme, Huduma Namba. The first one main point of contention is exclusion. Registration of the program is dependent on a person having a primary identification document like a birth certificate or a national identity, which can then be presented for biometric enrolment. There are a number of groups, particularly border communities that have historically been marginalised, never had birth certificates and are totally excluded. Border communities are the people are most in need of government services and yet the system is designed to be the sole means to access them.

The second big issue is the design of the system, as all the data is stored in a centralised database. There was no comprehensive data protection law in Kenya and yet there was no public discourse on what that means for social welfare services, or services that are provided for people, healthcare and for people receiving treatment for HIV. A lot of the NGOs/non-profits who work in identity inclusion have been working with people who are at risk of statelessness for a number of years, which brings up conversations on digital rights and data protection law. There was a sense of betrayal as people have been talking to parliament and government committees to get this legislation in place, but the digital identity programme was an omnibus bill containing 54 amendments, so there was no opportunity to discuss the implications.

How has the court case affected the scheme?

When the court case started the government was ordered to stop using the data, which they have done. That’s positive as there’s a fear it would be exported to another country. They haven’t fully stopped the enrolment, instead it’s been made voluntary. Unfortunately the marketing of the project has meant a lot of people enrolled. Huduma means service, so it was communicated as a new scheme that would enable you to get government services, something that most people find really difficult. They have to use intermediaries or travel from one part of the country to another, so there was hope this would solve their problems. It’s particularly important for anybody who’s at risk of statelessness, for example the Nubians. For a Nubian child to get an ID, they need to show the ID of their parents and grandparents, so anyone who’s at risk in that sense was the first to sign up for a permanent record of their documentation and nationality. Today the reality is if you lose your ID, you’re risking your children ever getting an ID as the process for getting a new one is so complicated. We put the cart before the horse by attempting to implement a big project without first making a comprehensive policy. The court case should take everybody back to the drawing board and there will have to be some transparency and involvement of more players

How did you end up in the identity space?

I’ve always been into politics and then when following the election, it was interesting how politics and technology intersect. People would receive messages that were targeted to them because of their tribal names, which is effective because for a long time our politics have been mobilised on an ethnic bias. These messages weren’t as extreme as hate speech or anything that’s outlawed, but they were targeted. That is fascinating because we’re getting to a point where even democratic processes are being redefined by technology in a way that has never been anticipated in current laws. It’s really hard to say that political parties broke any rules, because a lot of them were religious, poems or Bible verses about leadership, but they were tweaked to touch the emotions of tribal politics.

How do political parties have access to people’s names and contact details?

There’s a detailed voter register that has contact details and voting stations and so on. It’s a requirement under law that this should be published so it can be inspected by anyone who wants to, because previously there were a number of issues like people on register who are too young to vote or others who are actually dead.  However the first time it was published, it contained too much information like people’s identity numbers. Policy advocates immediately called the electoral management body and brought it to their attention. In that period, some of that data was harvested or bought from officials of the election body. Now there was a whole new economy people who were buying, selling and repackaging data. People are providing bulk messaging services to target voters registered of your particular area and even voters who are likely to vote in your favour because they’re members of the same tribe.

The influence from digital political companies like Cambridge Analytica has meant political actors learnt a way of being perpetually politically active with messages and memes. We’ve been in a state of active campaigning ever since the elections. It’s ridiculous, sometimes you listen to the news and you have to remind yourself that we’re still 3 years away from the next election because the political messaging online makes its way into traditional news.

What channels does this come through?

A number, but one interesting one is WhatsApp. It’s so reflective of our society. Everybody who has a smartphone is in several WhatsApp groups; whether you’re organising a wedding, going to a funeral, or attending a baby shower, you form a WhatsApp group. These kind of groups generally do not die after the function is over, so people continue to wake up in the morning and send messages to all the groups, send jokes and send memes, some of which are political messages. Some of them are subtle, some of them are really funny jokes that make light of everything in Kenyan life. Ultimately it keeps you in this perpetual hold, so you never forget who the president or key members of the administration are because they have an active post every 2 hours.

What’s next on your agenda?

I’m still in the public advocacy space and generating public knowledge to get more discussion on the issues of how society is organised. Digital identity can have really positive social and economic benefits on our society, but it’s been approached from the aspect of security and control. In Kenya we’ve had ID for over 100 years. We were a settler colony, that historically had a scheme called ‘kipande’ which controlled the movement of people. Now we have a duty to make inclusive ID which helps us distribute resources more fairly to people who need them more, to save on resources and help the government plan better. There’s a need to talk about these things and put pressure on the government to do it in a better way. We often hear that ‘We are going to lose out on the fourth industrial revolution, we will not be left behind. We Africans must leap frog.’ For this the human element and inclusivity is key. We have almost given up all our thinking and want to say everything can be solved by AI or better technology, yet if we don’t first resolve the human problems, I don’t think technology will help us.

Find Grace @Bomu

Leave a comment