Published online by Cambridge University Press: 31 March 2020
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.
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.
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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’.
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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.
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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).
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