Biometrics from the Margins:

A History of ID Cards and Biometric Registration in Kenya

From fingerprint to iris scans, biometrics—the application of statistical analysis to biological data—is increasingly part of people’s lives, especially in postcolonial countries such as Kenya. Though often portrayed as a frontier market for cutting-edge biometric technologies, Kenya has a long and fraught history with fingerprinting, which was used by British colonial authorities to monitor and discipline African laborers. Marketized Identities asks: How have East Africans harnessed, transformed, and subverted biometric technologies since they were first introduced in the early twentieth century? Can an identification and registration technique long associated with colonial extraction be a means of accelerating political and financial inclusion for the world’s poor, as many proponents suggest? Supporters argue that biometrics will enable African countries to “leapfrog” to new stages of development. This project flips the script by showing that digital biometrics, though a novel technology, is layered atop an older, analog history.


This project has been generously funded by a 2019 American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Fellowship, a 2019-20 Fulbright US Scholar award, a 2018 BA/Leverhulme Small Research Grant, and a 2017 thematic research grant from the British Institute in Eastern Africa.