How metadata retention is being abused in Africa

Posted on January 13, 2017 12:02 am

In countries like Kenya, Nigeria, there has been new security laws that have been enacted in the last few years in what those countries governments said were a way to getting bad guys out of circulation and nipping in the bud terror actors.But I can confidently reveal the metadata retention is currently being misused to harm ordinary Africans than catch criminals or terrorists. Debate over a data retention scheme can seem abstruse, given the technical aspects of the debate and the complex legal and philosophical issues around freedom of speech, a free press and privacy. The powerful security agencies across Africa are demanding that a mandatory data retention scheme be implemented with little debate and less information, there is no settled definition of what data is to be retained, and the telephone and ISP companies that will be forced to implement the scheme don’t know the costs they will face. Some security agencies heads claims it is a national security priority, but in fact, there is nothing in the bill that will limit the use of data retention to terrorism or the most serious crimes. Even some countries have even said it will be used to investigate people who download music or movies online which sounds stupid and a lack of priority for such a government.As African governments steps up pressure on the lawmakers to swiftly pass mandatory data retention regime, many experts have voiced their concerns and believe that it would be easily abused thanks to high levels of corruption in Africa and even if more oversight is needed, there is little thing public can do about such regimes.

In countries where such laws are in place, people are being sleep walked into systems the law enforcement agencies themselves cannot even articulate.In Kenya, under the 2015 security laws regime, telecommunications companies would be required to keep their customers’ metadata for undisclosed period. The laws were passed in a controversial fashion as the ruling party outmuscled the opposition who were vehemently opposed as such laws can be abused to muzzle the alternative voices in Kenya, a country of more than 40 million people. The argument of the proponents was that if Kenya security agencies don’t keep such data, then crime fighting agencies and the police will be flying blind.However, it is important for me to share what I view as a way of correcting what I perceives as widespread ignorance of what metadata is and how it used.No denying that African governments and law enforcement officials have had such a difficult time explaining why they need metadata.It is disappointing that proponents of such laws never come out and talk through the issues to the public and those opposed to them. Generally, the only talking heads you see on Africa’s mainstream media and some amateurish blogs have never even seen the metadata requests let alone understand how it works. It is common sense that cell phones weren’t invented when they walked the beat. An example analogy is asking a public library to keep a history on their systems of who borrowed a book. The library don’t care and what they want to know is who has a book but that information is only required until it’s returned. If the same was demanded of libraries in Africa, then their own version of ‘metadata’ data retention would force them to keep that information forever. A security researcher in Africa recently told your blogger that it is simply impossible that judge would refuse authorisation request for metadata from law enforcement. It would be simple, for example, she said, for a law enforcement officer to use the system to check up on their ex-boyfriend. No one would pick it up because there is no detail. It’s the process that is more decaying than the legislation.

The researcher is also concerned that future legal changes could see metadata used against people who the ruling elites feels are a threat to their very existence. All it would take is simple lobbying by a powerful politician to make a case.The vague definition of metadata in the legislation largely comes from the number of agencies who use the data. Everyone has a wish list they are trying to get implemented through interpretation. If given the choice most Africans would want content not held at all. The metadata scheme will continue to have direct impacts on all Africans. It will increase the cost of internet access, as companies pass on the costs of the scheme, expected to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars since Africans will be paying for their own government to collect data on them. Smaller ISPs will have to meet the costs of the scheme while competing against larger companies, likely reducing competition in that industry. It will also be a strong disincentive for companies to invest in communications infrastructure in Africa, placing its economy at a competitive disadvantage.Also, potentially data retention will affect Africans in ways the government has preferred not to discuss. Police services in the region claim that metadata is a vital tool in helping them investigate crime, that they are going dark as communications companies change their business practices. However, that ignores the question of whether mandatory data retention is necessary, reasonable and proportionate. To this point, there’s no compelling evidence provided that the data currently able to be accessed by law enforcement agencies in Africa will be no longer available unless this schemes of metadata proceeds. As of January 13th 2017, there is no police force in any African country where data retention exists has been able to produce hard evidence that getting access to more metadata has helped solve more crime. In fact, recent incidents, such as the Garissa University massacres and the Westgate siege, were perpetrated by people already well known to security services, and data retention which Kenya already has was irrelevant. What you can be sure about is that mandatory data retention being introduced across the continent, the actual criminals won’t be the ones affected by it and take my word, it will be ordinary Africans and the people whose job it is to hold the powerful to account.

Contador Harrison