Privacy first: Ugandan court hears civil society’s human rights warnings on digital identity system

The High Court of Uganda at Kampala must put human rights at the core of any decisions on the country’s digital ID system, Ndaga Muntu — a scheme mandatory for accessing core socio-economic services that millions of people cannot live without. 

On March 24, 2023, in a step towards safeguarding the rights of millions, the Court ruled to allow expert intervention from Access Now, ARTICLE 19, and the Collaboration on ICT Policy (CIPESA) on the human rights red flags around the country’s digital ID system. The ruling came in a case filed by the Initiative for Social and Economic Rights, The Unwanted Witness, and Health Equity and Policy Initiative, against the Ugandan Attorney general and the National Identification Registration Authority (NIRA) — the body responsible for administering the country’s digital ID system.

The High Court of Uganda has the responsibility to safeguard human rights. Access Now welcomes the Court’s decision to admit our brief on Uganda’s digital ID program, enabling civil society actors with unique expertise in digital rights to intervene in proceedings that affect people and communities across the country. Civil society’s input on the relevant international law applicable to the Ndaga Muntu will assist the Court in making a decision that will affect the fundamental rights of people in Uganda. Natalia Krapiva, Tech-Legal Counsel at Access Now

The brief outlines how mandatory digital identity systems that collect biometric data may force people to choose between forgoing their right to privacy or losing access to essential services, and calls on the Court to ensure that the law mandating registration is narrowly tailored and safeguards against abuse.

As outlined in our brief, courts must ensure that the human rights framework is at the core of any new digital identity system. Without this vital commitment, we are risking the rights of all, particularly vulnerable people and communities that are uniquely dependent on State programs to access basic socio-economic rights. Bridget Andere, Africa Policy Analyst at Access Now

The Court admitted the brief despite objections from the Attorney General and NIRA, rejecting the argument that the brief was partial merely because it doesn’t favor the state, and that it introduced new, inadmissible evidence. The Court, in fact, noted the significance of the arguments raised in the amicus brief, particularly on data protection, digital inclusion, surveillance, and the sufficiency of protection measures and their impact on the right to privacy.

Access Now, ARTICLE 19, and CIPESA hope to continue assisting the Court in ensuring that the digital identity systems respect these human rights standards. 

Access Now and partners thank Raymond Owak and Michael Aboneka, counsels for the applicants at the High Court of Uganda, and Sanjana Srikumar, Legal Fellow at Access Now, for their assistance on the case.