How technology is now reshaping human and business relations

Thursday July 12 2018

Private data online

Private data online is still exposed to unauthorised users as people unconsciously leave behind a huge footprint of digital information every day. PHOTO | CYRIL NDEGEYA | NMG 

By ROBERT KIRUNDA
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The past two months have been quite busy for anyone interested in new frontiers in technology in Kampala.

We hosted the largest blockchain conference on the continent on May 23 and 24. With over 800 participants from 23 countries around the world, the level of interest was as globally diverse as it was unexpected.

There were Ugandans of all shades of life in that audience. There were also the most sophisticated investors in blockchain and cryptocurrency present.

I was especially delighted to see a large Kenyan presence. The Blockchain Association of Kenya came in large numbers.

A key highlight was Dr Bitange Ndemo’s presentation on Kenya’s work on the three big technologies of the future: Blockchain, Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence.

Dr Ndemo did not define concepts. He spoke of how far along the journey Kenya is in harnessing the potential and power of these technologies.

Many of us in the private sector dread listening to public servants at conferences. They are often unprepared and boring. This was not the case with Dr Ndemo and Frank Tumwebaze, Uganda’s Minister for ICT, who crowned his speech by announcing that a task force on blockchain and other technologies is in the works.

You know you are at a new dawn when presidents start attending conferences on subjects like blockchain and holding the crowd spellbound with simple but profound explanations such as how to blockchainise the ownership and sale of cattle!

East Africa may have given the world mobile money but blockchain will perhaps be the technology that broadens the spectrum for East Africans to play on the global technology stage.

The public outcry in Kenya and Uganda on the new tax regimes affecting mobile money and social media in these countries has captured the various arguments against policy measures that seem connected from the plight of the citizens.

The subject of these social media and mobile money taxes deserves more justice in a piece of its own.

For now, it suffices to say many Ugandans went to bed on the night of July 1 wondering how we got here. It is not in doubt that tech related developments like these affect persons in remote areas as much as those in urban areas.

One possible reaction to the mobile money tax is that it may lead to a growth in agency banking.

One is forgiven for speculating that banks may have been behind this new tax. But we wait to see how banks like Stanbic that are big in the mobile money space will be affected by this new tax, if at all.

Interestingly, on July 12 and 13, Stanbic Bank will host a Tech Masterclass that is open to the public.

In all these developments, one is drawn to the centrality of data in our day-to-day lives and operations. To examine this point further, let us wind the clock back only to April this year.

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook testified before the US Congress. The subject, as the reader will remember, related to Facebook’s role in providing user data to Cambridge Analytica.

This data would then end up at the heart of one of the biggest and most scary scandals we have witnessed in recent history.

The scandal was scary because it left just enough room for the reader to wonder whether in fact the US election of 2016 was free from foreign interference. This mistrust boggles the mind. This is the power of data.

We unconsciously leave behind a huge footprint of digital information every day. The user has been transformed from consumer to product as this data is now packaged and sold to third parties.

Our digital representation is now an asset that is increasingly becoming internationalised. The likes of Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Uber collect so vast amount of data that many users are not even aware of.

While the user grapples with the question of whether data is being collected, stored and used ethically, the courts will soon start to adjudicate whether the collectors had the right to even gather this data in the first place.

As David Tollen put it to me when I got a chance to chat with him, in examining data as a resource one is faced with questions to which there are no easy or obvious answers.

The intellectual property regime we have today was for a very different era and is thus inadequate for the new waters in which we find ourselves.

Then there are the questions about contractual relations and regulation. What should matter more? The ownership or control of data? How do ownership and control differ from the right to use or vend this data? How then do we resolve disputes relating to such a fungible thing as data?

These questions lead one to the inevitable conclusion that as useful a tool as a contract is, it has its limits. Even then, one must draft these contracts meaningfully.

Things get even more interesting when you consider the two new competing dimensions of profit and privacy.

Consider the data generated because of and around the individual and their use of technology. The proprietary algorithm at Facebook, or even Stanbic for instance, will process behavioural information around the footprint I leave behind.

It will be argued that the resultant data is not mine, as in fact it is the product of an algorithm I do not own. But should I have no right to profit from this resultant data, or even the underlying data that I left as I passed by the digital highways? There is no easy answer to this question.

For now, we note that we are in the early stages of redefining the very notion of property as we know it.

Then there are privacy concerns. Many had not heard of Palantir until the Cambridge Analytica scandal. It turns out our privacy was for sale even before President Trump ran for the White House. Yet we still trade the privacy of our homes and lives for the convenience of Uber rides.

Buried in its terms of use in some of our countries is a clause that allows Uber to collect customer data for several minutes after the individual exits the vehicle.

We have not protested, or even noticed this clause. These seemingly meaningless packets of data are not only worth a lot of money, they are the very modern essence of modern personal security.

Because of how vast and timely this data is, these companies are useful allies of intelligence agencies. But the same data makes them dangerous avenues for stalkers to explore.

Robert Kirunda practices law with Kirunda & Wasige Advocates in Kampala.