Telecommunications channels are rapidly developing across Africa, providing new opportunities for interconnectedness. Foreign Policy explains that China has been a driving force behind this development for years, providing vital assets for expanding broadband access, semiconductor use, and artificial intelligence (AI) development. While this expansion is a critical part of economic and cultural development, it poses a clear risk to data privacy.
Between 2012 and 2019, 10 African nations—from Ghana to Madagascar—have passed laws to protect data privacy. For example, Kenya passed the Data Protection Act in 2019, which created the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner to regulate how personal information is processed, according to Baker McKenzie. These countries have made significant progress toward more comprehensive privacy laws, which was spurred by accelerative digitization during the pandemic. As of 2023, 30 countries in Africa have enacted laws like this. However, this is still a relatively untouched subject in Africa’s other 24 nations.
In Nigeria, privacy advocates became particularly concerned when biometric data was collected and used at 98 percent of polls during the country’s elections in February. Biometric Update reports that Nigeria uses a Biometric Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) during election cycles. The BVAS is meant to ensure election integrity, but requires citizens to provide their fingerprints and use facial recognition systems in order to cast their votes. Reuters continues that this poses a clear threat to data privacy by acting as a tool of mass surveillance. With little cybersecurity protection and few options for recourse, privacy advocates worry that the 93 million Nigerians who voted in last month’s election are at risk of identity theft and data monitoring. Nigeria currently does not have a data privacy bill.
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace warns that, without adequate data privacy regulations, marginalized groups will face high risks to their livelihoods. In Nigeria, over 40 million people live in rural areas with little to no access to banks. The expansion of mobile banking has been revolutionary for these underserved regions by enabling banking where traditional infrastructure does not exist. However, lack of data privacy and security regulations have enabled rampant fraud. Participation in a digital economy always carries risks, but these risks are exacerbated when adequate protection members are either not in place or not enforced by the government.
Breaking Defense explains that there is another risk associated with inadequate privacy regulation: digital authoritarianism. In Zimbabwe, the government formed a partnership with CloudWalk, a Chinese company, to develop AI that would create a national database for facial recognition. While the government characterized this as an attempt to revolutionize how the country approaches digitalization, privacy advocates have referred to this work as “the autocrat’s new toolkit.”
In February, Ghana celebrated Data Privacy Week, with the Data Protection Commission announcing that it would crack down on nearly 300 institutions that are failing to protect data, Business Ghana reports.
For countries like Ghana, which has created several initiatives to protect citizens’ privacy, increased digitalization provides significant growth opportunities. Tech Target explains that while people traditionally view privacy regulations as solely pertaining to personal and national security, there is also a significant economic opportunity to be had. Focus on data privacy has recently ramped up in both Europe and North America, in part as a response to fears of Chinese data monitoring. Tech Target continues that requiring domestic businesses to increase their privacy standards will enable these companies to be more competitive in the international market, as new privacy standards must be met in order to conduct trade. As a result, increasing privacy requirements is becoming a large part of expanding business in a rapidly modernizing world.
Data privacy is rapidly expanding in Africa, a trend that is likely to continue. The recent emphasis on regulation presents opportunities for expansion and protection. However, for the countries that are lagging behind, the risks they face only continue to increase while digitalization creates new dangers for the unprotected and underprepared.
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