Source: Unwanted Witness (Kampala)
Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni launched the country’s digital ID program in 2014 and it was further expanded after the passing of the Registration of Persons Act, 2015. The system is designed to collect biometric data such as fingerprints and facial photographs, as well as bio-data belonging to all Ugandans above 16 years of age, and stored in a single database.
One of the objectives fronted by the government of Uganda while introducing the ID system was to curb vote-rigging and inclusion into key public services. By February 2019, over 2.4million Ugandans had not received National Identity Cards, on top of other Ugandans who turn 16years daily and those who lose them for different reasons.
After 5 years of implementing the digital ID system in Uganda Unwanted Witness conducted research to establish whether the digital ID is really leading to inclusivity. The implementation of the digital ID system poses numerous concerns in regards to upholding human rights, particularly the right to privacy, starting from the collection, storage, management of personal data to uses of the ID. Citizens who are the primary stakeholders are excluded from the designing and implementation of the system.
The levels of exclusion and discrimination begin at the point of National Identity Registration, the ideal of being served on first come basis shifts to the notion of who you know, and getting signatures from the sanctioned authorities one has to pay a bribe, a practice that leaves those who cannot afford excluded. This extends to the Non-Indigenous Ugandans and ethnic minorities like the Maragoli who are always considered non- citizens because of their skin colour and historical origins respectively.
Certain populations with biometric complexities have their identification registration hang in balance, for example, the manual labourers, people with disabilities and the elderly with worn-out fingerprints which are hard to obtain. These have not been provided with alternatives leading to their exclusion from vital services.
The research findings presented by Unwanted Witness’s Preliminary report on digital ID in Uganda (2019), showed that it has become mandatory for citizens to present a National ID in order to access essential services, even when the country lacks regulations for enforcement. To open up a bank account, access a loan, get drugs from the hospital and participate fully in the economy, one must have a National ID. This has increased the poverty gap and disease burden amongst Ugandans without National IDs. This has made Ugandans find diverse means like registering their identities under other people’s names (IDs) to access services leading to a shortfall in achieving the sustainable development target (16.9) and Know Your Customer goal.
In the context of severe privacy risks associated with the Digital ID system, the use of personal data and purpose of retrieval must have a “legitimate aim” which may be in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime. The burden of proof in such cases must be on the state to demonstrate the legitimacy backed by the law but not a disguise to deny people their rights through deliberate withhold of vital services attaching it to identity.
As Unwanted Witness was disseminating findings of the digital ID report, in the same week, Kenya’s High Court passed a ruling on “Huduma Namba”. In the landmark judgment for the East African region, the Judge halted implementation of the National Integrated Identity Management system until legislation is enacted to guarantee the security of biometric data and ensure that the system is not exclusionary.
The need to identify oneself should not come with a risk of exclusion, exploitation and surveillance.