Privacy at stake as Uganda targets telecom users in bid to stop crime

Monday April 9 2018

A sim card registration exercise. PHOTO | ALEX ESAGALA | NMG

A Sim card registration exercise in Uganda. The government is putting pressure on telcos to obtain subscribers’ personal data. PHOTO | ALEX ESAGALA | NMG 

By CHARLES M. MPAGI
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In its efforts to stem nonstop crime in the country, the Ugandan government through the communications sector regulator, is putting pressure on telcos to obtain subscribers’ personal data, and also wants direct access to their private communications — a move widely seen as an infringement on citizens rights.

The government through the Uganda Communications Commission is also pushing telcos, at their cost, to create links to the National Identification and Regulatory Authority (NIRA) — the body that maintains the National Identification Register.

The government is hoping these actions will yield information that will enable it go after suspects involved in crimes such as kidnapping and murders which continue unabated across the country.

In the absence of a strong unitary voice to challenge the regulations, there are fears that the government will have its way, thereby negating guarantees to the right to privacy as spelled out in the country’s Constitution.

Article 27 sub-section two notes, “No person shall be subjected to interference in the privacy of that person’s home, correspondence, communication or other property.”

Sources say that of the two major telecom service providers in the country, one plans to challenge some of the regulations, which it views as intrusive, while the other is ready to co-operate. The other players are too small to make an impact, while the public lacks a central voice to fight back.

State interception

Officials in the telecom sector speak resignedly but are confident they will not suffer a backlash from subscribers.

MTNs chief executive Wim Vanhellenputte could not answer repeated questions on whether he can guarantee the privacy of communication among subscribers when this writer put it to him in a recent interview, only insisting that “MTN is complying with the law.”

But a senior official at MTN told The EastAfrican that while person-to-person communication is secured, “eavesdropping” by the state could not be ruled out, confirming that a link to NIRA had been ordered.

It has been a long journey to government control in the communications sector.

In 2010, Kampala passed the Interception of Communications Act following the twin terror bombing attack of July 11 during a live telecast of the final match of the football World Cup.

Loophole in the law

Though the Act provides a procedure to tap into a citizen’s communication (telephone or e-mail), police officers and other security agents have exploited a loophole in the law which vests the power to grant an interception order to a magistrate, to secure hundreds of court orders.

Solomon Muyita, the head of communication in the Judiciary confirmed that the number of applications is high: “It happens in different chief magistrate’s Courts but they are many across the country,” he said before referring this writer to Paul Gadenya, the outgoing chief registrar.

Mr Gandenya did not answer his phone and had not returned calls by the time of going to press.

UCC chief executive Godfrey Mutabazi said communication was safe but added a disclaimer.

“Yes, communication is safe, the law which regulates interception of communication is very clear, such interception can only happen following a set procedure, and one has to seek a court order first,” he said. “Interception [by state] is a matter of security as spelt out in the law; there is a special tool for a special purpose if government needs to intercept. However, with new technology anything can happen.”

The UCC chief confirmed that government asked telcos to provide an Application Programme Interface — a part of the server that receives requests and sends responses — creating a link to UCC and to NIRA.

He said NIRA will be looking for information like details of a Simcard holder as required at registration. 

Peter Magellah, a lawyer working with Chapter Four, an advocacy group said few professionals have worked on the wanton access to information, identifying key challenges for the laxity including modern Internet-based communications being relatively new technologies with little information to build on a legal case and the global fight against terror which makes people feel genuine justification for the intrusion.

However, it is not only phones and Internet that government is targeting. Since March last year, the state has aggressively made the case for expanding the reach of CCTV cameras, saying their absence was aiding criminals get away.

This became apparent following the daylight murder of former police spokesperson Andrew Felix Kawesi near his home in Kulambiro, a suburb of Kampala in March last year.

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