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Researcher cautions African govts against biometric surveillance without proper legislation

Researcher cautions African govts against biometric surveillance without proper legislation

African governments must press on with efforts to put in place robust data protection regulations if they continue to deploy biometric surveillance and other smart city technologies, writes Bulelani Jili, a PhD student at Harvard University with research interests in Africa-China relations.

In an article published by academic publication Nature, the research fellow who also researches cyber security and ICT development, contends that the harms that come with the use of surveillance technologies without appropriate legislation are great, meaning there has to be meticulous checks and balances if such deployments must not lead to political repression or infringements on civil liberties.

In Uganda, there have been concerns that the government is using facial recognition technologies to clamp down on dissent and fuel rights violation.

Cameroon also runs a CCTV surveillance system in some cities, but digital rights activists have also picked holes in it as the country currently has no specific law on personal data protection.

Jili writes that there is noticeable reticence by many governments on the continent in getting personal data protection legislation in place. Not only are some of the legislative frameworks in some countries outdated and difficult to enforce, many of the countries are still unwilling to ratify the African Union’s 2014 Convention on Cyber security and Personal Data Protection, which is a precursor for countries to set up their own domestic legislations.

“The risks of using surveillance technologies in places with inadequate laws are great, however, particularly in a region with established problems at the intersections of inequality, crime, governance, race, corruption and policing. Without robust checks and balances, I contend, such tools could encourage political repression, particularly in countries with a history of human-rights violations,” Jili sustains.

Although Jili cites some other African countries which have deployed biometric surveillance technologies, the focus is on Ethiopia and Kenya which have over the years invested in such technologies under smart city initiatives thanks to huge loans and partnerships with Chinese banks and tech giants.

While these projects have the good side, the concerns remain that smart city and other digital initiatives such as digital ID ecosystems rely largely on biometrics and other personal data which has to be safely guarded.

In this light, he cites Kenya as an example where controversy still lingers over the collection, storage and use of biometric data collected for tech projects such as the Huduma Namba digital ID.

Apart from issues around data protection and regulation legislation, the writer lists other problems associated with smart city projects in Africa, which also make it challenging for researchers to effectively study how much such technologies are deployed. One of the complexities is that many financial and technology partners are involved.

Jili concludes by proposing that while governments work to put in place legislations, other measures should be considered concurrently. These measures should include impact assessment on the consequences of surveillance technologies; deployment of experienced staff to offices of data commissioners; devise strategy and build public-private sector collaboration to encourage best practice; and encourage a shared approach to working on recommendations for legislation on use of surveillance technology.

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