HomeOpinion & AnalysisThe urgency for data protection law

The urgency for data protection law

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Stir The Pot:By Paidamoyo Muzulu

BIG brother — the proverbial all-powerful State system that hears and sees everything — was a scary proposition. It could even police thoughts and privacy had been done away with forever.

This scary scenario is painted in George Orwell’s futuristic novel, 1984. The book was ahead of its time, but Orwell was correct — the State wanted total control of its subjects, even thoughts in private moments.

Orwell’s book details a scenario that United States National Security Agency consultant Edward Snowden revealed in his exposé — PRISM — a project where all the United States big tech and mobile communications companies are connected to a State-controlled super computer for surveillance purposes.

Snowden revealed that the PRISM project was designed that it could listen to all telephone calls that started, were routed or terminated in the United States.

Not only could the system listen to calls, it could also snoop into your e-mails and all online conversations on social media platforms.

My thoughts to write this piece were triggered by three separate and somewhat unrelated events that happened in the past 10 days.

These include the salacious details  about Vice-President Kembo Mohadi’s alleged office shenanigans with married subordinates, the High Court ruling that Econet cannot send unsolicited messages to its clients and this week’s official opening of the National Data Centre by President Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Manhood and sexual encounters are private things.

Zimbabweans on social media were struck by the fact that the big man needed two — two full cups — of sex-enhancing boosters to make him crank.

The people were exposed to the facts that offices can be love nests and security details do not offer security to their principals alone.

Mohadi this week broke the silence and held a Press conference at his offices.

He denied that it was him in the audio recordings leaked to the media. He said two contradictory things: his phone was hacked and his voice was morphed.

A mobile device being hacked is a security breach.

If true, it means the hacker has more than audio recordings of the VP’s philandering.

The High Court interim judgment that unsolicited text messages Econet was sending its client was illegal has far-reaching consequences.

Econet has a trove of individual citizen data that could be rivalled only by the State.

It knows not only people’s identity numbers, addresses, movements, communications, banking details, social likes but also personal health.

Econet has in the past sold this data to third parties.

In the present case, it sold or donated the data with the Civil Protection Unit to broadcast messages on COVID-19 statistics. During the 2018 general elections, it sold the same data to Zanu PF. Econet subscribers received text messages soliciting for their votes from the ruling party.

The third and final incident was the official opening of the National Data Centre. This new institution will be a one-stop centre for all government data. The centre will be used for sharing critical data between State agencies.

“This will ultimately bring about fiscal relief through cost savings brought about by the sharing of data storage and processing facilities,” Mnangagwa said.

What is the critical data? This includes but not limited to ID numbers, social security numbers, educational information, health information, criminal records, civil records, properties registered with Deeds Office and personal travel history for those who go outside the country.

Mnangagwa had earlier at the burial of national hero Moses Griffiths Mpofu said that the police capacity-building must be implemented with urgency and speed in the wake of the use of artificial intelligence, technologies and forensic sciences as well as the growing need to fight trans-border crimes.

Sosha Zuboff in her book Capital Surveillance argues there must be some regulation of control of data collection and use.

She says data is being used to deprive individuals of the element of surprise and future.

The online communications now know what you would want to eat, where you want to sleep, when you want to exercise, what you want to study, what you want to say or search (predictive text) when working on mobile devices.

This subject is also tackled by Yuvral Harari in his book Homo Deus. Homo Deus is a Latin phrase that means “man-God”.

Harari argues in the book that science and technology will soon be used to defy death and the rich can live forever.

He writes about eugenics, bionics, a life predicted by data algorithms and worst of all the potential to live and let live forever.

However, in all this — it is the man or the institution that will control data that will become all-powerful.

Econet when it hived-off Cassava to be listed as a standalone firm on the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange, it described data as the new oil.

Everything will revolve around data in the near future.

Smartphones have become an accessory to surveillance — they record who you talk to, geo-location, your favourite online sites and your health.

Surprisingly, the area that is so critical to our being and security remains unregulated.

Zimbabwe does not have a standalone data protection law.

Econet, with 10 million active subscribers, knows who met who last night, who went where, who is ill, who transferred or bought something online and above all who texted what or said what on its platform.

It has become more than urgent to have a data protection law that prescribes how personal data can be used and archived.

A law that at least gives some privacy to the individual that their personal data does not end up with third parties for profit or nefarious reasons.

This is an urgent matter as we joke about More-Hardy and two-cups for a quick-start.

  • Paidamoyo Muzulu is a journalist based in Harare. He writes here in his personal capacity.

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