Creation of digital citizens database overdue


Technology will necessitate equitable distribution of public resources. FILE PHOTO | NMG

When India decided to develop a biometric database for more than 1.3 billion of its citizens, critics went to court to block the exercise citing infringement of their own privacy. The courts upheld the government decision arguing that technology will necessitate equitable distribution of public resources.

The project, Aadhaar, or "foundation," was an important step toward ensuring better delivery of subsidies and government schemes, and in stopping corrupt people from cashing in on a chaotic system that denied deserving people services. President Uhuru Kenyatta’s legacy agenda is susceptible to nefarious schemes that will require a trusted identity system to ward off cartels that may derail its effective implementation.

Those who are old enough will remember that Umoja Estate was a low-income housing project that was meant for the poor. Its implementation was, however, botched by the rich who bought all the houses and began to sell them at higher prices to the poor while some wealthy people bought the houses in order to rent.

The dilemma we face is the fact that the demand for services, especially low-income housing, in virtually all major cities in Kenya is excessive and may lead to higher prices even when the objective is to make the goods and services affordable. Delayed supply that does not meet demand also brings unnecessary negative publicity and eventual loss of the real customer.

Without a trusted identity, new projects like those in housing, healthcare, manufacturing and food security will provide an opportunity for unscrupulous businessmen to act as intermediaries and benefit from the dictates of excessive demand.

To avoid an imminent situation of intermediaries either disguising as philanthropists or interpreting information in case of services, the government must literally force every citizen to provide their biometric information in order to access any service from government.

The Indian government made it impossible to function if one had not provided their biometric information. They linked virtually every service from government to an Aadhaar number.

These included everything from subsidies to accessing mobile services, tax payments, pensions, health services and all other basic services offered by the Government. Everything was verified and authenticated by biometrics.

Although it may sound drastic and intrusive, it is the only way that some of these government schemes can benefit the deserving citizens. In healthcare for example, it is not uncommon to find patients cheating by using their relative’s insurance or accessing prescription medicines that have nothing to do with their respective diseases.

Poverty is forcing citizens collude with doctors and access medicines on behalf of unscrupulous businessmen seeking to benefit from non-effective identity systems. This is perhaps the major reason why insurance premiums are expensive. For government to create affordable healthcare, these premiums must come down to affordable rates.

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The Cabinet Secretary in the Ministry of Information and Communications announced at the American Chamber of Commerce meeting in Gigil last week that plans are at an advanced stage to capture biometric data of all Kenyan citizens within the next few months.

This is laudable as it will enable inclusivity in delivery of government services but it will only work if there is no corruption in the acquisition of the system for capturing and storing the data.

Like in India, this announcement may face resistance from different groups. The initiative will complement the President’s fight against corruption in the country.

The biometric initiative is for the good of the citizens and there are no alternatives to developing sustainable trusted systems other than that.The high rate of counterfeits cannot be stopped until we create systems that can track and trace all imports as well as local productions.

Millions of people will benefit from government schemes including state stipends to old people, affordable housing, healthcare and food security. Richard Grant said, “The value of identity of course is that so often with it comes purpose.”