Tough rules needed on surveillance, data collection in Africa

Data surveillance

Experts have called for tighter regulation of the collection of private data by African governments.

Photo credit: Pool I Nation Media Group

Experts have called for tighter regulation on collection of private data by African governments and service providers even as states step up surveillance efforts to fight crime and tackle terrorism. 

They have raised concern over the heightened risk of illegal access to these pools of personal data by hackers who use it for criminal purposes, including online fraud, cyberbullying, blackmail, identity theft and extortion. 

Further, the experts contend that most data protection laws that are being put in place have been imported from other jurisdictions such as Europe and therefore do not address the challenges facing the continent. 

This as concern has been raised over the increasing risk of governments using pervasive data collection techniques under the guise of ‘national security’ amid questions over the extent to which governments should collect data about individuals. 

ICT expert John Walubengo, who is a lecturer at the Multimedia University, says limits should be put on the extent of data that can be collected by both public and private entities, and how such information is used. 

“The issue is not to stop the data collection, but to have parameters within which those sensitive personal data sets can be collected, stored, accessed, shared and others. Don't over-collect information about people without justification,” said Mr Walubengo, a member of Kenya’s National TaskForce on Blockchain  and Artificial Intelligence, told Nation.Africa Twitter Space.

Dorothy Mukasa, the executive director at Unwanted Witness, said surveillance mechanisms that are increasingly being employed by different African governments are outstripping legal safeguards.

Ms Mukasa reckoned that some repressive regimes are rolling out massive surveillance, sometimes illegal, campaigns on the pretext of national security in a bid to tighten their grip on power.

Oftentimes, she said, these governments breach legally acceptable procurement procedures to buy surveillance technologies 

“I should say across Africa and beyond, every government today is surveilling on its citizens. The reason being fronted for surveillance is national security, being the responsibility of government. What is concerning is that surveillance is not simply an act, but it's a process that really collects a lot of our data and reveals a lot about individuals,” she said. 

Prof Tom Kwanya, the director at the School of Information and Communication Studies at Technical University of Kenya (TUK), said surveillance has a critical role to play in curbing crime by helping identity perpetrators. 

He however stated that data privacy must be respected even as individuals retain the right to information and enjoy their freedoms of association and expression. 

“In my view this is a very delicate balance. And I think it will require a lot of discussions that would involve all stakeholders— from people who are users of technology and people who are regulators of technological spaces and even people who regulate imports of such technologies,” he said.  

Mr Edrine Wanyama, an ICT law expert at CIPESA, a Kampala-based lobby that works to promote effective and inclusive ICT policy and practice, said data protection is relatively new to most African countries, and thus some countries lack elaborate mechanisms to properly protect their citizens from illegal surveillance. 

New legislation

“The majority of the countries in Africa have new legislation on data protection. And governments have not really been fully prepared to put in place or to have robust measures that aim to protect personal data of the individuals in the past that had been collected through immigration, through registration of persons, through issuance of driving permits, or through provision of some other services,” he said. 

He further noted that most countries on the continent lack strong data protection offices as well as experts, derailing efforts to entrench policies that enable protection of sensitive information. 

“You sometimes find that people who have been deployed actually though contending to be experts in data protection have not really been experts in the area and have never been trained in that particular line,” said Mr Wanyama. 

Victor Ndede, the Digital Rights Lead at Amnesty International Kenya, said data surveillance hardware and software should not be sold to countries that have shown repeated violation of human rights.  

“These software have been used to stifle a couple of rights because you can't express yourself when you know all too well that you're being surveilled,” he said. 


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