The future of travel is up in the air. As countries and companies attempt to define what safety looks like in this late stage of the pandemic, one proposal that seems to be gathering momentum is a vaccine passport enhanced by digital add-ons. Blockchain and biometrics are on the table. The question of digital identity systems is now laced with transnational urgency.

As the European Union and the United States mull over making such passports mandatory, the African Union and international organizations like the International Air Transport Association have offered their own proposals. Before the pandemic, many travelers had to provide vaccination cards in order to enter certain countries, the logic goes. Why not extend this to Covid-19? 

While deciding what to do about the digital passport, it is useful to revisit recent experiences in digital identity. Kenya and India have begun to pivot to digital ID systems, and the World Bank is pushing for countries to adopt similar plans. The argument is that digital systems will make governments more efficient in identifying needs and allocating support. 

But digital identity systems will only make governments more efficient at what they are already doing. If a government is currently using its identity systems to discriminate against minorities and exclude them from power, then they will only become more efficient at that. 

A digital ID system cannot create values that don’t already exist in the society in which it is built and deployed. The digital will only intensify whatever momentum already exists in the analog. 

In February 2019, the Kenyan government announced that every resident over the age of six had 45 days to present themselves to the local government in order to register for the new ID system. Each person would be granted a biometric identification number, known as a Huduma Namba, or “service number” in Swahili. 

The government threatened that those who did not participate in the exercise would lose access to government services, including passports and driver’s licenses. Not only was the process conducted under a veil of threats, but it was also conducted in the absence of a legal framework to protect identity information. Kenyans would have no legal recourse to challenge misuse of their data. 

For several years, the government of Kenya had promised a review of the national identity card system –– the kitambulisho –– but there were many false starts. A major criticism of the kitambulisho system was that discrimination is built into its DNA, with specific minority groups like the Nubians and Somali Kenyans subjected to extra scrutiny and exclusion. As rights activists and Kenya’s High Court noted, the Huduma Namba system did nothing to address these structural concerns and merely threatened to consolidate them.

Concerned citizens led by the Nubian Rights Forum challenged the Huduma Namba in court and won a suspension of the process, pending the establishment of a data protection law and a data protection commissioner as well as the remediation of many of the exclusions and inequalities embedded in the identity system. The Data Protection Act was passed in 2019, and the Data Protection Commissioner appointed in 2020, but underlying questions about profiling and exclusion have not been addressed.

There are many technical criticisms that can be leveled against the Huduma Namba initiative, but it is equally important to pay attention to the social and political implications. 

One of the major fallacies embedded in the way digital technology is built and deployed is that technical efficiency can somehow compensate for or address political failings. The Huduma Namba is a reminder that it is impossible to understand what effects a digital technology will have on a society without understanding the society in the first place. What if discrimination is embedded in the way identity systems are designed to work? What if people who have power don’t want to include minority groups? 

The process also represented a tremendous misallocation of scarce economic resources. The government of Kenya may have spent up to $60 million (6 billion Kenyan shillings) on the process in a year when the driest parts of the country were contending with a debilitating drought. Later in the year, the government requested international support to deal with the largest swarms of locusts in recent history, which compounded food insecurity. And when the pandemic hit in 2020, the government was unable to provide adequate health facilities and is currently unable to purchase adequate supplies of vaccines for its citizens

Kenya’s digital ID system diverted resources that should have been spent elsewhere, not least health but also in education, two sectors that are struggling. And after that, the government has publicly complained that citizens have been slow to collect their cards.

Digital technology isn’t developed in a vacuum. The opportunity cost of what does not get done because a digital ID system is being built must also be factored in the cost-benefit analysis of why a system should be built in the first place.

The Huduma Namba was never subjected to adequate public participation: there was no interest in bringing citizens on board to shape and deploy the system. This suggests that the entire process was about expanding the reach and influence of the state –– that the state was looking to be more efficient in policing and control rather than in delivering services. The Huduma Namba rollout shows that the relationship between the Kenyan state and its citizens is marked by a deficit in trust. 

A digital ID system cannot create values that don’t already exist in the society in which it is built and deployed. The digital will only intensify whatever momentum already exists in the analog.

Digital technology is a product of culture, shaped both by those who use it and those who build it. And digital ID systems have costs and implications that cannot be measured exclusively in monetary or technical terms. Trust is one of the many intangible things that makes a society work. Biometric platforms threaten to restructure that balance. 

In a world that embraces exclusion rather than inclusion, and where universal access to vaccines is not only far from guaranteed but is being actively undermined, a digital vaccine passport will only intensify division. 

A digital vaccine passport is qualitatively different from previous vaccination cards because analogue vaccine cards are designed to verify the batch number of the vaccine, not the identity of the person who received it. Already in countries like Singapore, the government has reneged on a promise to keep information collected on digital platforms during the pandemic away from policing and surveillance. 

If a state or a system has a reputation of coercion, surveillance, and oppression, a digital ID system won’t cure that; it may only make things worse.