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Digital innovations must respect civil liberties, always

OPINION
By Gift Sally | January 15th 2022

The digital revolution has brought new economic opportunities and the ability to access and share information more freely to many.

But before we put on our celebratory hats, it’s important to take a critical look at the impact of technologies on our civic rights in this digital age. For example, artificial intelligence, the (mis)use of algorithms, facial recognition, and other forms of biometric surveillance.

Our rights to data privacy are quickly fading in a world in which the long arm of governments and private actors can wield digital surveillance equipment. This presents a serious threat to our freedom of expression. The 2021 revelations about the use of Pegasus spyware are but one example of grave misuses of technologies to surveil and control journalists and human rights defenders.

In Kenya, we are witnessing technological developments that give great cause for concern. Many citizens – myself included – have been receiving messages from telecom companies to urgently “update” their SIM card registration details. This is not new. Many African countries now have mandatory SIM card registration. However, what causes confusion and concern among customers is that they refer to facial recognition as an additional layer of registration in the directives of the Communication Authority of Kenya.

It’s not at all clear what exactly is meant by “facial recognition” in the message. Is there indeed an effort underway to go beyond making copies of ID documents? How do any additional registration requirements square with the provisions of the Data Protection Act? And while telecom operators remain unclear in their communication about the new update, the Communication Authority only refers back to its existing regulations on the collection of registration details.

Given the global controversy surrounding facial recognition and its potential for increased surveillance that could chill civic participation, communication about it should be much more transparent. As is, the message raises concern that plans may be afoot to increase data collection for the purposes of surveillance.

Kenya is widely recognised as Africa’s Silicon Savannah and has made great strides in expanding digital technologies for the societal good. But amidst growing concerns about the human rights impact of facial recognition and artificial intelligence, it is high time that Kenya matches its progress in digital innovation with an equal level of responsibility in the regulation, design and use of technology. One way to achieve this is to apply the principles of open government

The writer is Regional Communications Manager at Hivos East Africa

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