Kenya pushes ahead with anti-counterfeit phone plan; activists fear surveillance

A woman speaks on her cellphone as she walks past a mobile phone service center operated by Kenyan's telecom operator Airtel Kenya in downtown Nairobi, Kenya, July 15, 2021.[Reuters]

The Kenyan government announced this month that it intends to go forward with a plan that it says will help address the problem of counterfeit phones, but digital rights activists say it poses a risk to privacy.

 Earlier this month, Kenyan Minister of Information, Communication and Digital Economy Eliud Owalo said the government is set to push ahead with the Device Management System program, or DMS, Reuters reported this week.

 The program gives the country's communications regulator access to the unique identification number of cellphones in Kenya to block services to counterfeit devices.

 Owalo said the program is intended to stop the spread of fake and stolen devices in Kenya and enhance cybersecurity.

 The East African country is a nerve center for fake goods on the continent, and smartphones account for more than half of all counterfeit products in the country, according to Kenya's Anti-Counterfeit Agency.

 "The Communications Authority of Kenya has set out to develop an effective technological solution to control the threat through the deployment of a system to automatically detect and disable end-user equipment that does not meet set criteria," Owalo told a parliamentary committee this month.

 The DMS was first announced in 2016, and after several years of court appeals, Kenya's Supreme Court in April this year gave the Communications Authority of Kenya permission to go ahead with the program.

 Digital rights experts have for years expressed concerns about the DMS and its implications for surveillance and privacy violations, with some saying CAK is overstepping.

 "It's a form of spyware," David Indeje, from the Kenyan technology think tank KICTANet, told Reuters.

 "At the heart of it, there are serious privacy concerns. The government and other third parties such as telecoms operators will have access to users' phone data, including calls, messages and financial transactions," he said.

 A CAK official told Reuters, "The aim of the DMS is to isolate and deny services to the illegal devices ... it does not access subscriber personal information and data."

 It is unclear when the DMS will be introduced.

 But when it is, Damaris Onyancha, who works at the Kenya Human Rights Commission, told Reuters, "We will be watching closely as the DMS is rolled out and remain on high alert for any violations to the rights of Kenyans."

 Some information in this report came from Reuters.

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