Witness tells court huduma number project was not to collect fresh information from Kenyans

Court users and staff members register for Huduma number in Mombasa County. [Kelvin Karani/Standard]

A witness has told the High Court that the Huduma Namba registration exercise was not meant to collect fresh information from Kenyans.

Bryan Omwenga, an information technology expert, was testifying on behalf of the Government on the project that has been dogged by controversy.

The Nubian community and the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) have filed a case challenging the constitutionality of the National Integrated Identity Management System (Niims).

They want a three-judge bench comprising justices Pauline Nyamweya, Weldon Korir and Mumbi Ngugi to declare the registration exercise unconstitutional.

Alternatively, they are seeking guarantees that the information collected by the State will be stored securely.

Mr Omwenga was taken to task by KHRC lawyer Jackson Awele on the collection of personal information that included personal emails, mobile numbers, profession, and whether one owned land or practised farming.

Asked by Mr Awele whether he knew that the State would acquire fresh citizens' details, Omwenga said that did not happen.

The three judges had previously barred the Government from collecting DNA data and GPS coordinates until a case challenging the exercise was heard and determined.

Omwenga told the court that the purpose of Niims was to collect information which already existed in manual form spread across several Government agencies.

The expert said the architecture of Niims would have resolved all concerns of Kenyans, including security, if his recommendations had been followed.

He testified that policies ought to have been in place to ensure protection of privacy.

The court also heard that there were no security fears before the data was collected.

Security concerns

"The way I would put it is that this data was given to Government ... concerns of its security were not brought up before because there was some confidence ... and the Government is showing intentions to improve," said Omwenga.

Awele then asked Omwenga whether he knew if there were any policies or laws ensuring data protection.

"I would assume there are," replied Omwenga.

"Have you seen them?" Awele continued.

"No, I have not," he replied.

Omwenga insisted that his role was only to give advice and it was up to the Government to decide whether to act on it or reject it.

He said he did not know whether the Government had put in place measures to ensure the personal data provided under Niims was secure and could not be used for unauthorised purposes.

"I cannot answer that question. It is a client's decision to take the advice or not," he replied, adding that it is 'common practice' that information is encrypted for security.

Omwenga was asked about his recommendation that the information on what the State required ought to be available in order to have a variety of vendors.

He said this was intended to ensure competitive bidding and quality services that were also cost-effective.

The court heard that there ought to be standards under which system audits should be done.

The witness said he was not aware whether the standards were available to the public but warned that it would be irresponsible for the Government to release them because they could be used to breach the system's security.

The judges heard that the law required that the data collected by Niims would end up in a master population register.

Omwenga said an independent body ought to be created to ensure checks and balances when accessing the register.

"How would a layman know if their information has been illegally accessed or used by the Government?" asked Awele. "If you gave your DNA today and that information is given to a third party to determine your ethnicity, lineage or criminal disposition, would you want to be notified?"

"Yes, I would," Omwenga replied.

"Do you know whether Niims has that capability of letting you know that your information has been accessed without the consent of the owner of the data?" Awele continued.

"I would not know," the witness replied.

Omwenga said that the more data was gathered, the more accurate the system would be in identifying people.

He said he was not aware that some people without identification cards could not be registered for Huduma Namba.

"If the system works that way, that would be unfair," he replied.