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Data boss takes office amid high expectations

By Wilfred Ayaga | Nov 8th 2020 | 4 min read
By Wilfred Ayaga | November 8th 2020

Immaculate Kassait. Parliament has approved her appointment as a data commissioner. [Boniface Okendo,Standard]

Have you been a victim of mobile phone scammers? Did the caller seem well updated on your most intimate personal information?

Well the reason could be that an institution you trusted with your data exposed it to the fraudsters.

While many Kenyans have fallen victim to these schemes, the trend has grown unabated.

Data controllers and processors, such as mobile service providers, banks and their staff either have helplessly or in complicit with fraudsters abused personal information.

The task of slamming brakes on these fraudsters and their agents now falls on the shoulders of Immaculate Kassait, who was approved last week as the country’ first data commissioner.

The former director of voter education at the Independent, Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) has her work cut out in a county which for long lacked a data protection law, allowing entities, both government affiliated and private, to exploit people’s personal information for shadowy purposes.

The office was created to ensure that personal data is protected.

Her most immediate task will be to ensure the integrity of the controversial National Integrated Identity Management System (NIIMS), popularly known as Huduma Namba.

The system is intended to create and operate a national population register, but some lobby groups fear it could be abused.

Ms Kassait’s other duties will be to rein in data processors and controllers that have been sharing such data without consent; selling it to or manipulating it for political reasons.

Those targeted include mobile service providers, banks, health service providers and even state departments, such as the registrar of persons, and IEBC.

These institutions have in their possession large amounts of data, which remained unprotected until last year when parliament passed the Data protection Act.

Moribund law

But without a data commissioner to implement the law, it remained just a shell. Kassait will receive and investigate complaints from people whose personal information has been infringed upon.

She will also carry out periodical audits to ensure data controllers and processors comply with the law. She will be required to create a register of all data processors and controllers.  

Debate on the floor during her approval mirrored concerns that have long preoccupied citizens on the safety of their data.

“For many years, Kenya did not have a data protection law. As we speak, we have no register. There are many data processors, some of them quacks and controllers who are not registered,” said Garissa Township MP Aden Duale.

“Whether it is banks or mobile service providers, she has to find out that the data they are processing is being done according to the law.” 

Funyula MP Wilberforce Oundo told parliament how the country’ mobile service providers have failed to protect people’s data.

“Telcos misuse people’s data. Many times, you receive calls and short text messages and you wonder where they have come from. It is important that the data commissioner ensures this stops once and for all. We receive many calls from Kamiti telling us: We are out here, open the door, we are going to kill you,” said the MP.

“At one time, a arival in the last election sent me a text message asking that I vote for him. It later emerged that he had illegally obtained my number from a mobile service provider.”

William Kisang, the Chair of the National Assembly ICT committee hinted at de-linking the office of the data commissioner from the ICT ministry to give it more independence.

“We want the data commissioner to be independent. When the directorate is set, we will de-link it from the ministry of ICT so that there is no interference,” said the MP.

He continued: “Now that we have a data commissioner, I believe that soon Huduma Namba will be issued to Kenyans.” 

Rogue multinationals

Alego Usonga MP Samuel Atandi told Parliament how multinationals have been trading in people’s data, and called on the new data commissioner to stamp her authority.

“I would like Kassait to be a bold data commissioner. There are multinationals that have abused data from Kenyan,” said Mr Atandi.

“They have sold it outside to be used for strange purposes. She should be very bold and be able to rein in these multinationals.”

Mathare MP Anthony Oluoch said the implementation is going “to ensure that there is connectivity between all the registration departments such as registrar of births and deaths and the processing of identification cards.”

“The position is going to be very crucial and requires a lot of support, including budgetary,” he said.

“The office will now deal with issues of online abuse, fraud and instances where one gets messages from people whose identity you don’t have an idea of,” said Nominated MP Jacquiline Oduol.

Rangwe MP Lillian Gogo said the country should create a very authentic way and hire a competent person to hold its citizens’ data.

Nominated lawmaker Danittah Ghati said she hoped the new data commissioner will digitise all data, and singled out that for people with disabilities.

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