The disregard for Data Privacy in Uganda

In the late 90s, as a Systems Administrator for Starcom, one of the pioneer Internet Service Providers in Uganda, I had the privilege of managing the Email server and in the process got to know which email accounts were used by StateHouse as well as the Kabaka of Buganda. Out of pure professional ethics, not even once did I snoop to find out what kind of communication they were undertaking. As the overall administrator of the server, I had unlimited privileges that I could have chosen to abuse at will or in exchange for a few pieces of silver. That was then.

Close to eight years ago, I got to learn about this couple. They were so much in love with one another until the entry of the other girl turned things around. Rita couldn’t stomach it any longer and quit the relationship. Meanwhile, her boyfriend had other ideas. After failing to convince her to reverse her decision, he turned to stalking her. Philip had friends who worked for the Telecom company that his ex girlfriend was subscribed to. With their help, he tracked down her phone interactions in a manner that eventually proved disastrous to her new relationship. To-date, these scenarios are still common with telecom employees willfully playing the role of Judas. I have been told that for as little as UGX 50,000/= one can get phone records for any person of interest without needing a Police or Court order.

When it comes to the banks, someone I will call Mark has had banking records involving his credit cards and other transactions given to his wife without his approval. How she accesses the information is still a mystery to him. The bank in question is a leading international bank whose professionalism you would ordinarily not put to question. He is now scared because if his wife can easily get such information, then what happens in the event that someone who has ill motives makes a move for the same?

The case of Bank connivance in the death of an Eritrean Businessman in Uganda is very telling. The Inspector General of Police came out decrying the presence of a Mafia Network in the banking system. Airtel was recently too accused of abetting number plate theft. These are matters not to be taken lightly.

There has been a fresh demand by the Uganda Communications Commission to ensure that sim card registration is adhered to. In a recent press release, the to-do list had among others a requirement that, database reconciliation/verification to be done by operators in liaison with NIRA (National Identification and Registration Authority). This has caused a lot of concern. The depth of information that NIRA has about individuals is so much and if shared carelessly with other providers whose lackluster approach to confidentiality is well known, the threat on individuals is likely to be made worse. Whereas thugs have always had only phone records to contend with, now they are likely to have residential information, next of kin thereby making it easier for them to plan kidnaps for ransom.

I have a bone to pick with UCC for the haphazard manner in which some interventions are undertaken. After huffing and puffing about sim registration and fines to Telcos that do not comply, many of us were under the impression that this matter had been settled as far back as 2015. It is a shame (a very big one) to realise that it had to take the death of a high profile individual for the same institution to bring this matter to a close. I cant shake my head enough to show my disappointment. However, that is a story for another day.

Now that private data is being aggregated with the potential for sharing it with providers in future, what should be done to ensure that we minimise its abuse?

  • Enact a Data Protection law

This is a law that prohibits the disclosure or misuse of information held on private individuals. The cases cited in this article can easily be pursued legally once the appropriate laws are in place. The Data Protection and Privacy Bill 2014 already has the desired provisions. These include;

Section 27 Unlawful obtaining and disclosure of personal data

(1) A person shall not knowingly or recklessly –

(a) obtain or disclose personal data of the information held or processed by a data controller; or

(b) procure the disclosure to another person of the information contained in personal data.

(2) A person who contravenes this section commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding one hundred and twenty currency points  or imprisonment not exceeding five years or both.

Section 28 Sale of personal data

(1) A person shall not sell or offer for sale personal data of any person.

(2) A person who contravenes subsection (1) commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding one hundred and twenty currency points or imprisonment not exceeding five years or both.

NB: Please note that One Currency Point is equivalent to UGX 20,000/=

  • Limit the amount of information shared with third parties

UCC should ensure that going forward, NIRA does not share all users’ information with the Telcos or any other third parties. This can be made possible through the use of software interfaces which limit the kind of access one can have to the National ID database. This is something within the means of NIRA to achieve in a short a time as one week.

Other than that, I look forward to the day when employees as well as companies whose staff are involved in illegal use of private consumer data are made accountable for their ill deeds. Many are suffering out there silently having been victims of this unprofessional conduct. Others have had to pay for it with their lives. We cannot afford to wait any longer.

James Wire is a Small Business and Technology Consultant based in Kampala, Uganda

Follow @wirejames on Twitter.

Email lunghabo [at] gmail [dot] com

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