Kenya’s New National Digital ID System Presents Challenges and Opportunities in Equal Measure Commentary
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Kenya’s New National Digital ID System Presents Challenges and Opportunities in Equal Measure
Edited by: JURIST Staff

With the recent resurgence of discussions surrounding digital identification in Kenya, it is time to take a closer look at the potential benefits and associated risks. In October 2021, the National Integrated Identity Management System (NIIMS) introduced in January 2019 and popular as ‘Huduma Namba’, was declared illegal by the High Court for conflicting with the Kenyan Data Protection Act, 2019. The court’s decision was influenced by the absence of a Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA), which is mandated by section 31 of the Kenyan Data Protection Act 2019. The lack of a DPIA was a crucial factor because the information collected under NIIMS consisted of sensitive personal data. The court recognized that the loss or unauthorized access to such data could pose significant risks. Additionally, the court had previously determined that the collection of DNA and the use of GPS to track an individual’s home location, prior to data processing and the implementation of Huduma ID cards, were intrusive and unconstitutional. Despite these concerns, the President of Kenya, H.E. William Ruto, has taken the initiative to promote a new digital ID project. The goal of this project is to enhance government services through digital transformation, to make up to 80% of these services available online.

Speaking earlier on January 27, 2023, during the 2023 Data Privacy Conference at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC) Nairobi, President Ruto tasked the Cabinet Secretary for ICT, Mr. Eliud Owalo, to ensure that by the end of 2023, all Kenyans can be digitally identified. Ruto, while stressing the significance of accountability, transparency, and cost-effectiveness in this initiative, has recently issued new demands. On June 30, 2023, during the launch of 5,000 digitized government services at the KICC, he stated:

“In the next 90 days, we must have a Digital ID. We are all aware that there was another phantom project called Huduma Namba. Huduma Numba was a complete fraud because we lost almost 15 billion Kenya shillings (over $100 million) and got very little out of it. It is possible for us to have a Digital ID without spending 15 billion and without defrauding the people of Kenya.”

Potential Benefits of a National Digital ID System in Kenya

Globally, the adoption of digital identification has been growing at a rapid pace. By implementing an effective digital ID system and securely storing personal information, Kenya has the opportunity to unlock a world of benefits for its citizens. To start with, the popularity of digital identities has been on the rise due to their simplicity, affordability, and ease of use compared to traditional systems. With a digital ID system in place, accessing government services becomes a breeze with reduced bureaucratic hurdles. Moreover, the risk of identity theft drops dramatically. Data accuracy is improved, making it possible to eliminate manual record-keeping errors and ensure that citizens’ information is accurately represented. Financial services become more accessible, promoting financial inclusion and boosting public confidence. The growth of e-commerce and online transactions is also supported, allowing individuals to participate in these activities with reduced fraud cases easily. Furthermore, accurate and up-to-date data on citizens can help the government to target resources effectively, making a digital ID system a powerful tool for improving the delivery of government services.

Potential Drawbacks of a National Digital ID System in Kenya

Along with the ease of use and convenience offered by a national digital ID system, there are also potential drawbacks that raise valid concerns among citizens. One such issue is the security of personal data if proper safeguards are not in place. This is pegged on Kenya’s lack of robust security infrastructure to protect sensitive information and maintain data privacy. There are also concerns about the lack of transparency in how the information is being used and the potential for government misuse of collected centralized data without the consent of the citizens as the data subjects. Additionally, contrary to the national values and principles of the Constitution of Kenya 2010, there is a risk that certain marginalized populations may be further disadvantaged by this implementation, especially those who face barriers in terms of access and connectivity.

Comparing Kenya and Malawi’s Digital ID Initiatives for Children

In Malawi, the government’s goal to provide 8 million IDs to children by the end of 2023 has sparked concerns about privacy and surveillance, with biometric data being collected and even newborns issued a unique ID number, especially as the country’s data protection law is still being drafted. The program is part of the National Digital Malawi program. Despite the support of UNICEF, it is noted that the lack of a robust data protection regime raises questions about the security of the collected biometric data. UNICEF observes that the issuance of IDs can make millions of previously undocumented children visible and reduce the risk of abuse by making proper identification possible. Notably, children without IDs in Malawi are faced with various challenges such as difficulties enrolling in schools and accessing healthcare.

The Kenyan government is implementing a policy framework to streamline the online registration of births and deaths pursuant to the ICT policy 2019. As part of this initiative, Unique Personal Identifiers (UPIs) within a digital ID system will be introduced for newborns, starting on September 16, 2023. Inspired by Estonia, the UPI will serve as the child’s identification number throughout their primary and secondary school years. Once the child reaches 18, the UPI will seamlessly transition into their national identity number.

In Kenya’s pursuit of navigating the digital ID landscape, it is vital to consider the valuable lessons from Malawi and proactively address concerns related to privacy, surveillance, children’s online safety, digital rights, and discrimination. By learning from Malawi’s experiences, Kenya can ensure a more inclusive and responsible approach to its digital ID initiatives.

Kenya Moving Forward 

As Kenya embarks on a new chapter with its digital identification initiative, it is vital to address the lingering doubts and negative perceptions arising from past experiences. This entails showing a commitment to adhering to Kenya’s data privacy legislation, The Data Protection Act 2019, which remains a crucial blueprint for ensuring the protection of personal data and the upholding of the constitutional right to privacy.

As earlier noted, the absence of a Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA) contributed to the court’s decision against the rollout of Huduma cards in Kenya. Conducting a DPIA is a crucial exercise that evaluates privacy risks associated with data processing and then goes on to outline strategies to mitigate those risks. The processing of Huduma Namba data without a DPIA would have posed a risk of a similar nature during the processing of individuals’ addresses, familial ties, and biometric data. Section 31 of the Data Protection Act 2019 provides that the assessment is to be done where a processing operation is likely to result in a high risk to the rights and freedoms of a data subject.

The successful adoption and implementation of a digital ID system also require a nationwide commitment to public participation, a cornerstone of the country’s constitutional principles as outlined in Article 10 of the Constitution of Kenya 2010. During an earlier interview with a local TV station, the Cabinet Secretary for ICT, Mr. Eliud Owalo acknowledged the well-intended efforts behind the previous Huduma Card initiative but acknowledged that its rollout was plagued by a lack of proper public sensitization and engagement with all relevant stakeholders, including the Kenyan public.

The Constitution of Kenya emphasizes the importance of public involvement in shaping policies that impact citizens’ lives. This includes digital ID systems, which must be designed with the needs and perspectives of citizens in mind. Involving the public helps build trust, ensures accessibility and legitimacy, and provides valuable insights into potential risks and impacts. In addition, a multi-stakeholder approach that incorporates a diverse range of perspectives should be taken before launching the new Digital ID program. This approach would involve working closely with a variety of stakeholders, such as government entities, private organizations, and civil society, to ensure that all relevant voices are heard and considered.


In conclusion, the development and implementation of a digital ID scheme is a superb opportunity to demonstrate how innovation and data privacy protection can coexist. The new aspirations of H.E. President William Ruto’s administration to digitize government services by, among other programs, digitization of ID systems, can bring many benefits including simplified access to government services, improved security, the accuracy of data, financial inclusion, and effective government resource allocation. However, there are also potential risks such as data safety concerns, lack of transparency, and marginalization of vulnerable populations.

To ensure success, it is imperative that the government strengthens the data safety and security safeguards, involves public participation, adopts a multi-stakeholder approach, upholds transparency, protects the marginalized, and must be compliant with all privacy and data protection best practices as envisioned by the Data Protection Act 2019. Most importantly, the new national digital ID scheme must honor the integrity of the supreme law of the land, the Constitution of Kenya 2010.

Edwin Gakunga is a student at Kenya School of Law.


Suggested citation: Edwin Gakunga, Kenya’s New National Digital ID System Presents Challenges and Opportunities in Equal Measure, JURIST – Student Commentary, July 18, 2023,

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