Privacy, data safety, and trust are eroding in Uganda as government censorship intensifies.

Kampala, 28th/01/2021; Today we join the rest of the world to commemorate international Data Privacy Day. The day aims at raising awareness about respecting privacy, safeguarding data, and enabling trust.

However, the day is being marked at a critical moment when privacy, data safety, and trust is eroding amidst intensified government censorship and surveillance in Uganda. Two weeks ago, on election eve, the government shut down the internet on grounds of maintaining public order, and although the internet has partially been restored, social media platforms remain restricted. 

Unwanted Witness Uganda is concerned about how this prolonged social media restriction is driving Ugandans to use Virtual Private Networks (VPN) that come with a lot of data manipulation risks.

“Some of these VPNs keep logs of our data such as names, addresses, names of the websites we visit, to do behavioral analytics for marketing and profiling. This information is transferred to third party users or the makers without the users’ consent”, Says Mr. Chris Kalema the Lead Technologist at Unwanted Witness. 

He adds that VPNs are designed with codes that have trackers that the users may never know and unfortunately Ugandans are using them without any clarity. Some VPN applications more especially the free ones have permissions and pre-installed trackers that users cannot control or uninstall by design and therefore cannot be trusted. 

Similarly, throughout the election process, Unwanted Witness observed increased use of technology by security agencies to surveil on street protests and opposition political rallies, with an intent to limit dissenting voices. This has resulted in arrests and the disappearance of an unidentified number of youths and scores of deaths.

The lack of public scrutiny in the use of biometric machines to verify voters and unknown results transmission system-generated mistrust between citizens and the electoral body, the Electoral Commission, jeopardizing the credibility of the process.

As a move to curb the spread of Covid-19, the Electoral Commission instructed political candidates to use digital platforms to look for votes, we witnessed an unprecedented illegal use of people’s personal data by politicians. Political parties were not transparent about their data processing activities, including publicly identifying the mechanisms they used to engage with voters (e.g. social media, websites, direct messaging) and how they collected people’s data, what data they collected, and the sources of it and how they used it. 

“The Electoral Commission failed to have in place effective safeguards (Binding code of conduct/Regulations) that reflected changes in digital campaigning. By doing this they would have fulfilled their mandate established under Article 60 and Article 61 of the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda 1995 (as amended) to organize, conduct and supervise regular, free and fair elections and referenda, among other functions” Says Dorothy Mukasa the Executive Director of Unwanted Witness Uganda.

One of the qualities of a trusted data collector is the ability to be transparent and accountable to the data subjects as enshrined in Section 3 (a) and (f) of the Data Protection and Privacy Act 2019 is having a robust Privacy Policy a legal document that discloses some or all of the ways the Electoral Commission or NIRA gathers, uses, discloses, and manages a person’s data, none of them has a Privacy Policy. This lack of transparency led to voters missing out on the voting exercise because the voters’ register was unclean with voters’ names repeated, name-face mismatches, and deletion of some voters’ names from the register.

We, therefore, call upon the government of Uganda to expedite the enactment of Data Protection and Privacy regulations for effective enforcement of the Data Protection and Privacy Act 2019 and to fully restore the internet to avoid data manipulation risks that come with the use of VPNs.  

About The Unwanted Witness

The Unwanted Witness, Uganda is a civil society organization (CSO) that was established to respond to the gap in effective communication using various online expression platforms

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