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BIOMETRICS, RACE MAKING, AND WHITE EXCEPTIONALISM: THE CONTROVERSY OVER UNIVERSAL FINGERPRINTING IN KENYA

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  31 March 2020

KEREN WEITZBERG*
Affiliation:
Institute of Advanced Studies, University College London

Abstract

This article excavates the imperial origins behind the recent turn towards digital biometrics in Kenya. It also tells the story of an important moment of race-making in the years after the Second World War. Though Kenya may be considered a frontier market for today's biometrics industry, fingerprinting was first introduced in the early twentieth century. By 1920, the Kenyan colonial government had dictated that African men who left their reserves be fingerprinted and issued an identity card (known colloquially as a kipande). In the late 1940s, after decades of African protest, the colonial government replaced the kipande with a universal system of registration via fingerprinting. This legislative move was accompanied by protests from members of the white settler community. Ironically, the effort to deracialize Kenya's identification regime only further normalized the use of biometrics, but also failed to fully undermine associations between white male exceptionalism and exemption from fingerprinting.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press

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Footnotes

This article was first workshopped at the Institute of Advanced Studies at University College London (UCL), where I received thoughtful and generative feedback from Prof. Tamar Garb, Prof. Megan Vaughan, Prof. Deborah Posel, Dr. Kafui Adjaye-Gbewonyo, Dr. Marissa Mika, Dr. Anna Marazuela Kim, and others. I am also grateful to Dr. Alden Young for reading an early draft of this article and to Prof. Keith Breckenridge for his insights into the history of biometrics in Kenya. Richard Ambani along with other staff at the Kenya National Archives were an invaluable resource as always. And thank you to the three anonymous JAH reviewers who provided extremely useful commentary.

References

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24 A. Sekula, ‘The body and the archive’, October, 39 (1986), 16.

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27 Ibid.

28 KNA AG 35/17, letter from Acting Solicitor-General, P. A. McElwaine, to Colonial Secretary, ‘Abuses of the provisions of the Native Registration Ordinance by employers’, 20 Nov. 1925; and The National Archives, London, United Kingdom (TNA) CO 533/413/6, ‘Native Registration Ordinance, Kenya: extract from record of interview of Kenya native witnesses with Lord Passfield’, 4 May 1931.

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37 Breckenridge, Biometric State, 11, 136, 216.

38 KNA AG 35/17, letter from the Chief Registrar of Natives to the Chief Native Commissioner, 6 Oct. 1925.

39 Nor were colonial officials able to fully curb such practices. In 1937, the government introduced yet another amendment to the Native Registration Ordinance to standardize the color of ink. TNA CO 533/483/15, ‘Copy of the bill as passed in the Legislative Council the 4th November 1937: An Ordinance to amend the Native Registration Ordinance’.

40 McGregor, Kenya, 189.

41 KNA AG 35/17, A Victim, ‘Kipandis and characters’, Daily Observer, 26 Nov. 1925.

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45 In his memoirs, Barack Obama describes being given the possessions of his late paternal grandfather. Among them was a Domestic Servant's Pocket Register. Obama, B., Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (Edinburgh, 2007 [1995]), 425–6Google Scholar.

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52 TNA CO 533/413/6, ‘Evidence of native witnesses’.

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54 TNA CO 533/413/6, letter from the Governor of Kenya to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, 5 Nov. 1931, 2.

55 Ibid.

56 TNA CO 533/413/6, letter from the Secretary of State for the Colonies to the Governor of Kenya, 10 May 1932.

57 TNA CO 533/413/6, letter from the Governor of Kenya to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, 15 Sept. 1932.

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71 Parliamentary Debates, Lords, 9 June 1937, 5th series, vol. 105, cols. 425–66.

72 W. E. Owen, ‘Meaning of the Empire’, The Times, 10 June 1938.

73 KNA AG 35/35, ‘Press communiqué: African registration’.

74 KNA PC NGO 1/13/10, letter from the Secretariat to all Provincial Commissioners, 30 May 1947. See also H. Muoria, I, the Gikuyu, and the White Fury (Nairobi, 1994), 4–5, 158.

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80 KNA AG 35/36, letter from the Acting Member for Law and Order to the Acting Chief Secretary, 8 July 1947.

81 KNA AG 35/35, confidential letter from the Director of Intelligence and Security to the Member for Law and Order, 11 Dec. 1946.

82 Ibid.

83 Ibid.

84 Ibid.

85 KNA AG/35/36, letter from Acting Member for Law and Order to the Acting Chief Secretary, 8 July 1947.

86 KNA AG 35/35, Labour Commissioner, ‘Memorandum on amendments required to the Native Registration Ordinance, Chap. 127 Laws of Kenya to implement recommendation of the report of the sub-committee of the Labour Advisory Board’; TNA CO 533/545/2, Colony and Protectorate of Kenya, ‘An Ordinance to amend the Native Registration Ordinance’ (no. 32 of 1947); and ‘An Ordinance to make provision for the registration of persons in the Colony for the issue of identity cards and for purposes connected therewith’ (no. 33 of 1947).

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88 TNA CO 533/545/3, Hon. E. W. Mathu, ‘The kipande controversy’, 29 Apr. 1949.

89 TNA CO 533/562/1, Colony and Protectorate of Kenya, ‘Report of a commission of inquiry appointed to review the Registration of Persons Ordinance, 1947’, 1950, 6–9.

90 Ogot and Ochieng’, Decolonization; Berman and Lonsdale, Unhappy Valley; Cooper, Decolonization.

91 TNA CO 533/545/1, telegram from the Government of India, External Affairs and Commonwealth Relations Department to the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations, 21 Sept. 1947; ‘Extract from record of meeting between the Secretary of State and Mr. Krishna Menon’, 1947; and A. R. Cocker, ‘Minority report’.

92 TNA CO 533/545/3, The Society for Civil Liberties, ‘Fingerprints! preliminary analysis exposing the Labour Department's proffered case for national registration’, 1949.

93 TNA CO 533/543/3, letter from R. R. Stokes to A. C. Jones, 23 May 1949.

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97 TNA CO 533/545/3, Hon. E. W. Mathu, ‘The kipande controversy’, 29 Apr. 1949, 3.

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104 TNA CO 533/545/3, ‘Commission will investigate’, East African Standard, 17 Aug. 1949; telegram from Sir P. Mitchell, Governor of Kenya, to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, 18 Oct. 1949; letter from Sir Waldron Smithers to Arthur Creech Jones, 3 Oct. 1949.

105 TNA CO 533/562/1, Colony and Protectorate of Kenya, ‘Report of a Commission of Inquiry Appointed to Review the Registration of Persons Ordinance, 1947’, 1950. Photography was not considered as a method of universal registration due to both its expense and purported inefficacy compared to fingerprints.

106 KNA ABK 14/223, The Society for Civil Liberties, ‘Exodus?’, 3–4. Emphasis in original.

107 KNA ABK 14/221, ‘Petition to Queen against fingerprinting’, East African Standard, 13 May 1952; and W. T. Shapley, Society for Civil Liberties, ‘Memorandum annexed to the petition to her majesty the Queen relating to the Registration of Persons Ordinance, Kenya, 1947’.

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109 TNA ABK 14/221, letter from H. Groombridge to W. S. Churchill, 24 Nov. 1951.

110 See also KNA ABK 14/221, letter from Harold Groombridge to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, 20 Nov. 1951; TNA CO 533/545/3, The Society for Civil Liberties, ‘Fingerprints!’; KNA ABK 14/221, ‘The petition of certain British subjects of the Colony’ to Sir P. Mitchell, Governor of Kenya.

111 Blundell, So Rough, 80.

112 J. Agar, ‘Modern horrors: British identity and identity cards’, in Caplan and Torpey (eds.), Documenting Individual Identity, 101–20; and KNA ABK 14/221, W. T. Shapley, Society for Civil Liberties, ‘Memorandum annexed to the petition to Her Majesty the Queen relating to the Registration of Persons Ordinance, Kenya, 1947’.

113 TNA CO 533/562/2, Secretariat, Nairobi, ‘The Glancy Report’, Dec. 1950; and ‘A national register’, The East African Standard, 16 Jan. 1951. The single European Elected Member who voted against the adoption of the Glancy Report, Derek Erskine, subsequently resigned from his seat in the Council. Roelker, J. R., Mathu of Kenya: A Political Study (Stanford, CA, 1976), 93Google Scholar.

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115 Clayton and Savage, Government, 296; Frost, Enigmatic Proconsul, 205; and KNA ABK 4/221, letter from Governor of Kenya to O. Lyttelton, Secretary of State for the Colonies, 25 June 1952.

116 KNA ABK 14/219, Colony and Protectorate of Kenya, ‘Registration of Persons National Registration: What Do They Mean?’ (Nairobi, n.d.), 45–58.

117 TNA CO 533/562/2, Press office handout no. 20, ‘Registration of Persons Ordinance’; Secretariat, Nairobi, ‘The Glancy Report’, 30 Dec. 1950. TNA CO 533/562/1, Colony and Protectorate of Kenya, ‘Report of a Commission of Inquiry Appointed to Review the Registration of Persons Ordinance, 1947’, 1950, 7–8.

118 Colony and Protectorate of Kenya, Legislative Council Debates: Official Report, Volume XLI, 3rd session, 2nd sitting (13 Feb. 1951–9 Mar. 1951), cols. 447–51.

119 Official Gazette of the Colony and Protectorate of Kenya, Vol. LIII, no. 5, ‘A bill entitled an Ordinance to Amend the Registration of Persons Ordinance’, 16 Jan. 1951, 53–6; Colony and Protectorate of Kenya, Legislative Council Debates: Official Report, Volume XLI, 3rd session, 2nd sitting, (13 Feb. 1951–9 Mar. 1951), cols. 447–542.

120 Legislative Council Debates: Official Report, Volume XLI, 3rd session, 2nd sitting, (13 Feb. 1951–9 Mar. 1951), col. 527. The trade unionist Makhan Singh wrote that the ‘new system of identity cards and work cards (“Buff Cards”)’ had ‘the same purpose as was served by the old kipande, with the difference that there were a few modifications in the penal sanctions and that the new system was on a non-racial basis’. Singh, M., History of Kenya's Trade Union Movement to 1952 (Nairobi, 1969), 154Google Scholar.

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124 Keith Breckenridge maintains that ‘in almost every respect the new biometric systems are the political antithesis of Galton's eugenicism’ and ‘offer intensely individualised identification in place of race and caste’. Breckenridge, Biometric State, 166. For scholarship on the in-built racism within technologies, see Magnet, S., When Biometrics Fail: Gender, Race, and the Technology of Identity (Durham, NC, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Noble, S. U.Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (New York, 2018)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Benjamin, R.Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code (Cambridge, MA, 2019)Google Scholar.

125 According to recent iterations of modernization theory, ‘developing’ countries can bypass earlier phases of technology and leapfrog to more advanced stages of development. An oft-cited example is the mobile phone, which has become commonplace in non-industrialized countries that lack an extensive landline infrastructure.

126 James Ferguson, for example, argues that ‘the development of more effective and inclusive techniques for identifying biological individuality should not be thought of as automatically regressive or politically objectionable’. He goes on to argue that ‘new technical forms of identity documentation and recognition … could in fact facilitate more effective and inclusive forms of state support and recognition even while requiring less, rather than more, intrusive surveillance’. Ferguson, Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution (Durham, NC, 2015), 86.

127 Breckenridge has coined the term ‘biometric capitalism’ to describe the capturing of the ‘informal’ economy through new biometric and financial technology. K. Breckenridge, ‘Biometric capitalism: infrastructures of identification and credit risk on the African continent in the 21st century’, (paper presented at Technosphere x Knowledge, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 15 Apr. 2016).

128 See Sandvik, K. B. and Jacobsen, K. L. (eds.), UNHCR and the Struggle for Accountability: Technology, Law and Results-Based Management (London, 2016)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Balaton-Chrimes, S., ‘Statelessness, identity cards and citizenship as status in the case of the Nubians of Kenya’, Citizenship Studies, 18:1 (2014), 1528CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

129 Nyabola, N.Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era is Transforming Politics in Kenya (London, 2018)Google Scholar.

130 Gatheru, Child, 89.

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