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Is this end of online anonymity?

By By FRANKLINE SUNDAY | December 3rd 2013


KENYA: In June this year, a little-known former CIA data analyst hit international headlines after leaking information about invasive surveillance programmes carried out by the US and UK governments on Internet users.

The revelations ignited heated debate on online surveillance, security and privacy worldwide, vaulting the 29-year-old Edward Snowden to the top of Time Magazine’s 2013  list for Person of The Year.

Snowden’s leaks revealed that the US National Security Agency (NSA) had developed a system that monitors, intercepts and records private user data without their knowledge.

He also revealed that Prism, as the data mining system was called, worked with the full collaboration of multinational technology companies and service providers, including Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Skype.

Headed for collision

In Kenya, as in many developing countries, the debate about surveillance versus privacy has been muted. Until now.

The government is headed for a collision with Internet users following revelations that the country is mulling new electronic surveillance policies that tread on some individual rights and freedoms.

The new policies come in the wake of rising acts of cybercrime and insecurity.

Last week, Nairobi hosted a conference that brought together government bodies, information security experts and multinational ICT companies from the 17-member Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa).

Top on the agenda was what policies the region would formulate to tackle cybercrime.

Speaking at the conference, ICT Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i said Kenyans could be forced to give up some liberties as the government gets more vigilant.

“We need to have this debate on whether or not Kenyans should consider sacrificing some liberties like privacy for the greater good, which is better security against cybercrime and acts of terrorism,” said Dr Matiang’i.

“Cybercrime has become a great economic and security liability in our country, and it is essential to enact appropriate laws that strike a balance between individual rights and the collective good of Kenyans.”

Threats to security

Five years ago, Matiang’i’s argument would have seemed out of place. In fact, cybercrime was hardly a criminal offence until 2009 when the Kenya Information Communication Amendment Act was enacted, facilitating the prosecution of cyber offenders.

And since then, Kenya’s 16 million-strong Internet population has become a formidable online community in Africa. Kenya has the second-largest Twitter population, third-highest number of blogs and fourth-largest Facebook population on the continent.

The country is leading worldwide in the adoption of mobile money transfer and has made commendable strides in e-commerce and adoption of paperless modes of payment like credit and debit cards.

However, the rapid development in technology seems to have caught the government unprepared as tech savvy criminals take to online platforms to rip off unsuspecting Kenyans and financial institutions.

Commercial banks in Kenya have suffered huge losses through cybercrime — between $10 million and $30 million (Sh865.4 million and Sh2.6 billion) in the last year alone. According to a Deloitte report released last month, most cybercrime cases remain unreported as commercial banks fear losing face.

The government maintains that the threats to security are as serious online as they are physically.

“The need for more stringent electronic surveillance becomes apparent in the wake of incidents such as the Westgate terror attack, and if there is a chance that we can stop such events from happening in the future, a compromise on our online privacy is inevitable,” said Matiang’i.

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