The Kenyan government has been floating the idea of a digital national population database, Huduma Namba, for a while. But it hasn’t firmly addressed concerns such as how people’s data will be protected.
The case for having Huduma Namba is that it would facilitate transparent and efficient delivery of public services by making it easier to access information contained in NIIMS—the National Integrated Identity Management System. This would make people’s lives easier, the government says.
Naturally, there are problems with such a system. The most pressing one is that the information is held in a centralized national database, which may not be as secure as they should be. Central databases have loopholes which leave them vulnerable to attacks. So, imagine how happy cybercriminals would be to get a national identities database on a centralized system—it would be the best gift they ever received.
It is in this context that blockchain technology promises to protect data contained in Huduma Namba more effectively and securely.
One of the most raised concerns about Huduma Namba is that the system cannot adequately safeguard sensitive information against potential data breaches. Huduma Number, in particular, pulls together an individual’s identification information, passport number, NHIF number, Kenya Revenue Authority’s Personal Identification Number (PIN), among other information. Some of the information being recorded is sensitive and without a robust security system in place, cybercriminals could take over and lock everyone out until a ransom is paid. Crooks could also interfere with the data rending Huduma Namba useless.
This is where blockchain technology comes in. By putting an individual’s data in a decentralized database rooted in blockchain, it is possible to secure data and make it harder for cybercriminals to get access to it. Besides, blockchain uses cryptography—an ingenious way of securing data by making it hard to decipher or hack—as well as encryption to protect publicly available data from unauthorized access.
A blockchain-based database for Huduma Namba would guarantee data security. This is because, being distributed among multiple nodes, the system won’t suffer from having a single point of failure like traditional government databases. One or two nodes of a blockchain can become inactive and users will still be able to use the platform. It is therefore virtually impossible to hack the database—thieves will have to obtain the private keys for every individual on a one-by-one basis, something extremely unlikely in practice.
What privacy measures have been put in place to protect citizen’s data from the prying eyes of government officers? Remember Huduma Namba is attached to all other information about you such as your income, your KRA PIN, your property and your spouse’s identification information. So its possible unscrupulous officers could go on a fishing expedition resulting in serious consequences like misuse of information or identity theft.
By contrast, the use of blockchain heightens privacy for Huduma number since sensitive personal information will not be revealed to government staff. This is enabled through a cryptographic technology called zero-knowledge proofs (ZKPs). ZKPs can prove a claim without actually sharing the data associated with proving that claim. Introducing ZKPs and blockchain to Huduma Namba would, therefore, enable the government to make the process of ID verification simpler and more efficient while eliminating potential misuse of citizens’ information.
To give you an example: let’s assume you went to apply for a passport and the issuing officer logs into the Huduma Namba database. ZKPs will ensure that the officer can only see the information they should access. So they will not be able to see your PIN, your property, your medical records and the taxes you pay.
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In addition to preventing tampering of data, blockchain can also provide greater transparency by detecting misuses of data more quickly than a centralized database. For instance, Estonia is currently using blockchain-based ID system to enhance transparency in the provision of government services.
Security and privacy are just some of the reasons why the Kenyan government should turn to blockchain for its Huduma Namba. As a biometric database containing records of millions of people, it would be sensible to protect such data against potential attacks and misuse. And with the government insisting that Huduma Namba will become mandatory for all Kenyans, blockchain could not have come at a better time.