By Duncan Kinuthia, Ford/Media Democracy Fund Tech Exchange Fellow at Research ICT Africa
More African internet users are joining the quest for anonymity over the internet, fueled by the recent violations of users’ data integrity and privacy by social media platforms. This, together with the frequent security breaches by hackers and censorship attempts by governments, has led to the increased use of data anonymization tools as users strive to achieve information sanitization for privacy protection and safety and security over the internet. Given that the internet, by design, makes complete anonymity impossible, data anonymization succeeds through the removal of information that could lead to personal identification and through the encryption of user information. The use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) is on the rise by global internet users and corporations due to the added encryption that VPNs offer to the data during transmission over a less secure network such as the internet. This has resulted to an exponential growth of the VPN market over the last decade with MarketWatch reporting a compound annual growth rate of 18%. VPN connections are established using encrypted secure channels complemented by compulsory user authentication to access the VPN connection.
Africa has experienced an explosive growth in mobile broadband over the last decade, which has led to a growth in the number of internet users in the continent. This has resulted into an evolution of economic, political and social activities, with more users from the continent joining social media platforms not only to keep in touch with family and friends, but also for a number of economic activities. E-commerce is also on the rise in Africa, catalyzed by the growth of mobile money services across the continent. But while internet use is bringing about many benefits to the Region, at the same time censorship, social media taxes and social media shutdowns for political reasons are also growing in the region, and these actions might reduce some of the gains of digitalization.
To many African users, social media is the Internet, and the high cost of data bandwidth is the main barrier to its use. That is why, for instance, many users in Uganda were not happy to pay Over the Top (OTT) taxes which became effective from the 1st of July 2018. The law, passed by the Ugandan parliament imposes a daily 200 Ugandan Shillings ($0.05) charge to the use of social media platforms in the country. This amounts to around $19 annually, and together with the high costs of data bandwidth, they heavily curtail social media use, given that the gross domestic product per capita was only $604 in 2017. To avoid the social media tax, people are looking for ways to circumventing it. A survey conducted on social media taxation in Uganda revealed that 57% of the users turned to VPN services to avoid the imposed tax.
However, these are not the only reasons why African users are using VPN. In Kenya, many internet users use VPN and DNS manipulation to bypass Geo-blocks, where a lot of educational and entertainment content is unavailable in the country due to licensing, content copyright and the lack of a substantial market to ensure a return on investment, given that internet penetration is still low on the continent. Such services include Spotify, a lot of content on Netflix, YouTube Music, Google Music, Google Play Books, Pandora and other services. Internet users have turned to the use of VPN and DNS manipulation to gain access to these services.
In other countries, social media use is perceived as a threat to the establishment, and governments imposed political internet shutdowns. Internet blackouts are used as a counter to the use of VPN services to access restricted content, as the use of VPN connections over the internet relies on a working internet connection. The greater number of internet blackouts recorded in African countries are done during the election periods, over claims of controlling the spread of fake news. Netizens of the Democratic Republic of Congo are the latest victims to this, after a full internet blackout during the December 30th, 2018 election. Other African countries that have experienced similar internet blackouts include Ethiopia, Cameroon, The Gambia and Gabon.
Regional awareness on the dangers of information exposure and breaches on the web is relatively low, as the majority of African people have not had exposure to the use of the internet. In addition, those who are using the internet are not aware of cyber threats. The 2016 Africa Cybersecurity Report revealed that 50% of the respondents had not been given a cyber security awareness training. This has contributed to the soaring of the estimated cost of cyber-crime, with Nigeria having the highest estimated cost of $550 million. As the use of the internet grows in Africa, the need to ensure information security to protect people’s identities and a free use of the internet, comes up as a key concern as the region’s growth is transforming to one underpinned by the growth of the use of the internet. Understanding the current data anonymization techniques, tools and practices across the region and how widely information security measures are being used by African users is key to the raising of awareness, hence bringing evidence to the current policy debate on privacy, safety and security online from an African perspective.
Over the next one year, I will be working under the Media Democracy Fund Tech Exchange Program, hosted by Research ICT Africa, to research on information controls in Eastern Africa, including data anonymization techniques use and DNS manipulation with a key focus on the use of VPN. Research ICT Africa is a regional ICT policy and regulation think tank, active across Africa and conducts multidisciplinary research on digital governance, policy and regulation that facilitates evidence-based and informed policy making for improved access, use and application of digital technologies for social and economic development in Africa.
The key objective of my research project is to shed light on the practice of using VPN as a data anonymization tool in Eastern Africa, by both individual users and for non-profit organizations (NPO).
The Five Ws and How below will guide my investigation:
- What are the main reasons for using VPN as a data anonymization technique in Eastern Africa?
- Who are the main VPN users in Eastern Africa and what are the trends in the different user groups in terms of age and gender?
- Why do internet users and NPOs use VPNs in Eastern Africa?
- Where has VPN mostly been used?
- And When was VPN used in Eastern Africa?
- How has VPN and other data anonymization tools been used to ensure information security and privacy in Eastern Africa?
The research on the use of data anonymization tools in Eastern Africa will be key to providing insights to both pro-active and re-active data activists. Data collection on the different approaches used by internet users in Eastern Africa to achieve anonymity online will shed light on the creative approaches that individuals use to navigate around the barriers imposed by large corporations and governments. Some of the research findings will show trends of use of data anonymization tools during the election periods of the countries affected by social media blackouts. The research will also reveal how different users’ groups use VPN to facilitate the access of geo-blocked entertainment and educational content or for data security due to its encryption features.
In terms of policy recommendations, this research will support an understanding of the phenomenon of data anonymization from an African perspective and will inform regional and global policy debates on online privacy, safety and security in Africa. The research will also provide recommendations to African internet users on how to be safe and secure online through data anonymization across the region.
Duncan Kinuthia is a software developer and a data engineer based in Nairobi Kenya, with a deep interest in internet freedom and social justice. He possesses a background in Computer Science, and is currently a Research Fellow at Research ICT Africa under the Media Democracy Fund fellowship program. His research focuses on the use of data and the development of open source software tools to fight censorship and promote net neutrality in Africa. He can be contacted through: firstname.lastname@example.org