Five issues shaping data, tech and privacy in the African region in 2021

The COVID 19 crisis increased our reliance on technology and accelerated tech disruption and innovation, as we innovated to fight the virus and cushion the impact. Nowhere was this felt more keenly than in the African region, where the number of people with internet access continued to increase and the corresponding risks to their privacy and data protection rose in tandem. On the eve of 2021 Data Privacy Day, we take stock of the key issues that will shape data and privacy in the Africa region in the coming year.

  • Data Protection: Africa is often used as a testing ground for technologies produced in other countries. As a result, people’s data is increasingly stored in hundreds of databases globally. While many in the region are still excluded from enjoying basic rights, their personal information is a valuable commodity in the global market, even when no safeguard mechanisms exist. Where safeguards exist, they are still woefully inadequate. One of the reasons Cambridge Analytica could amass large databases of personal information was the lack of data protection mechanisms in countries where they operated. This 2017 global scandal served as a wakeup call for stronger data protection for many African states. Many countries are therefore strengthening their legal provisions regarding access to personal data, with over 30 countries having enacted Data Protection legislation. Legislators have the African Union Convention on Cybersecurity and Personal Data Protection (Malabo Convention) 2014 to draw upon and we are likely to see more countries enacting privacy laws and setting up Data Protection Authorities in 2021, in a region that would otherwise have taken a decade or more to enact similar protections.
  • Digital ID:The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 16.9 aims to provide legal identity for all, including birth registration. But this goal is often conflated with and used to justify high-tech biometric ID schemes. These national level identification projects are frequently funded through development aid agencies or development loans from multilaterals and are often duplicative of existing schemes. They are set up as unique, centralised single sources of information on people and meant to replace existing sectoral databases, and guarantee access to a series of critical public and private services. However, they risk abusing privacy and amplifying patterns of discrimination and exclusion. Given the impending rollout of COVID-19 vaccination procedures, we can expect digital ID to remain a key issue across the region. It will be vital that the discrimination risks inherent within digital IDs are not amplified to deny basic health benefits.
  • Behavioural Biometrics: In addition to government-issued digital IDs, our online and offline lives now require either identifying ourselves or being identified. Social login services which let us log in with Facebook, ad IDs that are used to target ads to us, or an Apple ID that connects our text messages, music preferences, app purchases, and payments to a single identifier, are all examples of private companies using identity systems to amass vast databases about us. Today’s behavioural biometrics technologies go further and use hundreds of unique parameters to analyse how someone uses their digital devices, their browsing history, how they hold their phone, and even how quickly they text, providing a mechanism to passively authenticate people without their knowledge. For example, mobile lending services are “commodifying the routine habits of Kenyans, transforming their behaviour into reputational data” to be monitored, assessed, and shared adding another worryingly sophisticated layer to identity verification leading to invasion of privacy and exclusion.
  • Fintech: An estimated 1.7 billion people lack access to financial services. FinTech solutions e.g. mobile money, have assumed a role in improving financial inclusion, while also serving as a catalyst for innovation in sectors like health, agriculture, etc. These solutions are becoming a way of life in many African countries, attracting significant investments in new transaction technologies. FinTech products collect significant amounts of personal data, including users’ names, location records, bank account details, email addresses, and sensitive data relating to religious practices, ethnicity, race, credit information, etc. The sheer volume of information increases its sensitivity and over time a FinTech company may generate a very detailed and complete picture of an individual while also collecting data that may have nothing to do with financial scope, for example, text messages, call logs, and address books. Credit analytics firms like Cignifi are extracting data from unbanked users to develop predictive algorithms. As FinTech continues to grow exponentially across the region in 2021 we can expect a lot of focus on ensuring companies adopt responsible, secure, and privacy-protective practices.
  • Surveillance and facial recognition technologies: Increased state and corporate surveillance through foreign-sourced technologies raises questions of how best to safeguard privacy on the continent. Governments in the region are likely to use surveillance technologies more to curb freedom of expression and freedom of assembly in contexts of political control. The increasing use of facial recognition technologies without accompanying legislation to mitigate privacy, security and discrimination risks, is of great concern. The effort to call out and reign in bad practices and ensure legislative safeguards will continue in 2021. Fortunately, we already have some successes to build on. For instance, in South Africa, certain provisions of the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication Related Information Act have been declared unconstitutional.

As we move through 2021, the African region will continue to see Big Tech’s unencumbered rise, with vulnerable peoples’ data being used to enhance companies’ innovations, entrench their economic and political power, while impacting the social lives of billions of people. Ahead of Data Privacy Day, we must remember that our work to ensure data protection and data privacy will not be complete until all individuals, no matter where they are located in the world, enjoy the same rights and protections.