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Why Kenyans Rank Poorly in Online Privacy

The 2019 Global Survey on Internet Security and Trust ranked Kenyans as the people with the least concern for privacy online, ranking at position 25 out of the 25 countries that participated in the survey. The report said that only 40% of Kenyans are concerned about their privacy online, way below the global average of 80%, a situation that could make them sitting ducks for cyber criminals. While the news is a little bit surprising coming from the Silicon Savannah, it is not startling. A careful look at the country can hint that this is actually the case.

A look at the landscape

Online privacy remains a mystery to many Kenyans. People treat the technology behind browsers and apps as a black box that gets a thing done and has no interest in them, just the same way a bedroom sees everything but has no interest in the data that is processed within its four walls. This is why people are quick to give out sensitive personal information in exchange for access to online service. The worst culprits are usually children and elderly people, who go ahead to even volunteer information about other people who are close to them.

Many of the offline behaviours are also replicated online, and this might explain why Kenyans are not keen on their privacy online. As a Kenyan, I have encountered several places where CCTV cameras are strategically placed in a way that they will capture your PIN when making card or M-PESA payments. This usually happens in shopping malls, and people never seem to give it care. In several cases I have been able to see the M-PESA PIN for mobile money agents as I deposit or withdraw cash from them. In many buildings and institutions, one is required to deposit their ID card at the gate or the door, and then give their phone number in order to be allowed entry.

This carefree attitude towards privacy is propagated by a number of factors, but lack of education/ awareness and government complacency are the two main culprits.

Lack of education

Whenever the product is free, the customer is usually the product. Many online platforms are free products for users. From social media platforms, apps and software, operating systems and many productivity tools, a current business model is to offer the services for free and then make use of the users’ data. Most people do not know this and they let their data be used freely in the transaction and thus take no precaution to protect themselves. They end up happily bringing a knife to a gunfight.

There seems to be a gap in educating people on safe practices online, especially in the Kenyan context. People are left to navigate technology blindly and to learn through mistakes they make. Kenya has a very dynamic society that is open to trying new things, a situation that makes them easy prey on the internet. As people jump from one app and platform to another, they end leaving behind loads of data and personal information that can be used by anybody. It does not help the matter any further knowing that the ‘Terms and Conditions’ pages are meant to be as hard to read as possible.

Government Complacency

The government seems not to give much thought to privacy. There are no laws that govern data protection and privacy in Kenya. Worse still, the government seems not prioritize the matter. Take the example of the Huduma Numba (National Integrated Identity Management System) which was launched early this year. Many protested that there were no laws that would guarantee security of their data, and even the court barred the government from collecting some data some data such as GPS locations. But the government went ahead to collect the same data during the census, taking advantage of the exercise to register the GPS coordinate of each citizen even without consent.

There are two data protection bills that have been proposed, and none seems to be making any progress. Instead, the government has now introduced a Huduma Namba bill that seeks to make registration for Huduma namba mandatory for all citizens and aliens, with little consideration of the security of the data and privacy of the citizens.

But even if the privacy laws are implemented, will the government honour the laws?

Solution

Privacy matters, whether it is online or offline. It is the reason why we shut the door when we use toilets, while it is no secret what we are doing inside there. How can we build a more careful society in Kenya that understands the risks and opportunities availed online?

Some countries are actively educating their citizenry on how to navigate the digital media safely, allowing for safe and informed actions online. An example is MediaSmarts, a Canadian firm that provides digital and media literacy resources to Canadians. This is a concept that would be very useful in Kenya.

They say that people don’t know how to think; they need leaders to think for them! Some of that is very true, in the sense that they need experts to come up with regulations and policies that will be applied to all. That is where the government comes in. The government of Kenya should invest in establishing legal structures that will protect Kenyans online, though laws, policies, regulations and public education.

Until that is done, Kenya will keep learning the hard way.

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