I want to start with a disclosure – I did not sign up for the referendum bill commonly known as the Punguza Mizigo bill but I support most of its well thought out provisions. They do look like a decent attempt to correct a myriad of issues forced on us by the political class.
As one of the architects of the Constitution of Kenya 2010, Dr. Ekuru Auokot is obviously well placed to provide solutions to the loop holes that the political class have discovered and used to ensure Kenyans continue to suffer rather than benefit from the progressive document enacted about a decade ago.
But let us now focus on the emerging ICT concerns. The main issue of concern revolves around the process of attaining the pre-requisite 1 million signatures.
Whereas Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IIEBC) has already pronounced itself on the matter and confirmed that the signatures are valid, questions still linger on how Dr. Auokot managed to marshal a million signatures while the more endowed political giants like NASA, then formally known as CORD failed in 2016.
A quick check on the Thirdway Alliance website seems to have the answer.
The page for collecting the referendum petition signatures has obviously expired and been removed, however, the one asking Kenyans to electronically sign up as members remains.
From it, one can deduce that a similar page may have been used for collecting the referendum petition signatures through the internet, by way of using a mouse to scribble out one’s signature. Such a process is not very different from what we use in the banking halls to electronically sign off our financial instructions.
This innovation must be applauded as a step in the right direction, albeit with limitations.
Many political parties, Members of Parliament, IEBC commissioners, the Law Society of Kenya and other critical agencies have continued to give lip service to the issue of integrating technology into our electoral processes.
Thirdway Alliance has for the first time demonstrated that technology, when used properly, can indeed support political processes and deliver the desired outcomes.
Now, let us review the limitations of these manual signatures that were captured electronically.
Strictly speaking, all these manual signatures that Thirdway Alliance collected through their online portal can have their validity challenged in court.
I do know it is complicated even for computer science students but the manual signatures captured electronically do not technically become digital signatures.
The fundamental difference between manual signatures captured electronically and digital signatures is that digital signatures are mathematical representations rather than pictorial representation of voter’s signature.
Manual signatures acquired electronically have challenges when subjected to Article 86 of the Constitution, which states that IEBC shall provide a voting method that is simple, accurate, verifiable, secure, accountable and transparent.
Of course collecting signatures in preparation for a referendum is not exactly a voting process and may therefore not be legally expected to adhere to these very high verification standards.
Nevertheless, there is no way IEBC can technically demonstrate to third parties that the set of signatures captured by Thirdway Alliance through their online portal must have came from the purported registered voters.
Again, just to be clear, I am more than persuaded that most of these online signatures must have indeed come from the purported voters. But in a court of law, personal persuasions rarely carry the day.
The IEBC would be legally cornered if someone took them to court and tasked them to technically demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that the signatures captured by Thirdway Alliance through their online portal indeed came from the purported voter.
This is because one can easily demonstrate the opposite, which is that the manual signatures captured electronically through the internet can easily be acquired through other means, including, but not limited to, hacking.
To make matters worse, those who actually signed the petition can turn around and claim “it wasn’t me, I was hacked”.
In other words, just because the electronically acquired signature matches my signature on the IEBC register, it does not necessarily mean that it actually originated from me - given the insecurities surrounding the Internet as the medium of signature acquisition.
And therein lies the fundamental difference between electronically captured manual signatures and digital signatures.
A digital signature can withstand its day in court in that the recipient of the digital signature can prove beyond reasonable doubt that it indeed came from a specific user or voter.
That specific user can also not deny this fact, using a technical process known as non-repudiation.
All the same, congratulations are in order to Thirdway Alliance for showing the strategic value ICT systems can provide to political processes. It is now up to IEBC and other agencies to fine tune this and mature the technology to the anticipated legal standards and thresholds.
Mr Walubengo is a lecturer at Multimedia University of Kenya, Faculty of Computing and IT.
Email: [email protected], Twitter: @Jwalu