Kenya's census and government mass surveillance agenda

Why Kenyan citizens are asked for information that a regular population count does not need.

    An enumerator records details of a family participating in the 2019 Kenya Population and Housing Census at the Kibera slum in Nairobi on August 24, 2019 [Reuters/Thomas Mukoya]
    An enumerator records details of a family participating in the 2019 Kenya Population and Housing Census at the Kibera slum in Nairobi on August 24, 2019 [Reuters/Thomas Mukoya]

    Over the past weekend, Kenya embarked on its decennial count of how many people call the country home. Over the loud objections of some, especially fans of the English Premier League, bars and businesses were shut as teams of enumerators fanned out across the country to conduct the population census. However, these were not the only voices of concern raised about the exercise.

    Censuses have a history of controversy in Kenya. The last two counts, for example, asked people about their ethnic affiliations, which is hugely contentious in a country where politics has been historically conducted along "tribal" lines. The numbers associated with particular ethnic groups are deemed to determine the outcomes of elections - which are themselves presumed to be little more than ethnic censuses. In fact, so controversial is the issue that the findings on the question in 1999 were never released and a decade later, there were concerns that even asking the question could reignite political violence.

    This time, much of the controversy has focused, not on the question of ethnicity, but on the privacy and anonymity of the data that Kenyans are required to provide. On the eve of the exercise, the government announced that people have to give out their national identity card number and their passport number. According to a press statement read by the government spokesman, Cyrus Oguna, this is "to establish the number of those who have actually acquired these documents".

    This explanation is highly suspect given that it is the state itself that issues these documents and could easily check its own databases. More importantly, finding out how many people have been issued passports does not require that enumerators write down passport numbers.

    The law governing the exercise, the Statistics Act, passed 13 years ago, puts severe restrictions on the information that enumerators can disclose and to whom. In essence, they are not allowed to share any information that could be used to identify individuals with anyone not directly involved in the census. And since the statement read by Oguna stated that "during the time of analysis, personal identity shall be removed from the data so as to achieve anonymity", the question remains why the data is being collected in the first place.

    It should also be kept in mind that the census follows closely on the heels of yet another controversial attempt to hoover up citizens' data.  In April, the government introduced a new system for registering residents and their property.

    Despite concerns about privacy raised by citizens, many of whom pointed out the lack of a data protection law, as well as a court order declaring that registration with the scheme was not compulsory, the state nonetheless attempted to force Kenyans to take up the Huduma (Service) Number, threatening to illegally withhold services from those who didn't. State officials even threatened arrest and deportation.

    Further, the government has demonstrated a serious interest in indiscriminate mass surveillance. In 2013, under the guise of preventing terrorist attacks, it sought to encourage Kenyans to spy on one another on its behalf using a Nyumba Kumi (ten houses) model which encourages locals to interact, share information about each other and provide information to the local administration and security organs. The system was borrowed from neighbouring Tanzania where it has been historically used as a means of political control and to strengthen one-party rule.

    More recently, as President Uhuru Kenyatta boasted in his annual address to parliament, the state has installed nearly 2,000 CCTV cameras in the capital Nairobi and in the coastal city of Mombasa "offering real time 24-hour security monitoring" of citizens.

    Not content with this, under a draft national CCTV policy, his administration is also seeking to make it mandatory for cameras to be installed in all public spaces including hotels, hospitals, clubs and supermarkets, places of worship and apartment blocks, and for owners of these premises to "provide reasonable access, connection, linkage and integration … to security agencies".

    Thus, the collection of personal identification data during the census fits squarely within this pattern of government surveillance. And it is important to note that this is a one-way street. There is little talk, for example, of cameras being placed in government offices and police stations to allow citizens to monitor what public officials are up to.

    Though there are cameras in parliament and footage is streamed online, they can be turned off at the parliament speaker's discretion. The media too can be barred from certain sessions if the lawmakers are unhappy with the coverage they get. Routine declarations of wealth by public officials, which are meant to help combat corruption, are also kept secret as are the "lifestyle audits" of public officials that President Kenyatta ordered last year.

    Although the country's constitution specifically protects the right to privacy, the state has turned this on its head to assert privacy for itself and its officials while denying it to the citizens. Today, it is the people who are accountable to the government, not the other way around.

    And thus even an exercise as mundane as counting the number of people living within the borders of the country has become fraught with risk and is conducted using threats of prosecution and imprisonment if one fails to comply. It is a reminder to Kenyans that the state still views the people primarily as subjects rather than citizens.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance.