CITIZEN MONITORING

Respect Kenyans' privacy during contact tracing, state warned

Government using NIS to trace contacts of Covid-19 suspects

In Summary

• National Intelligence Service allocated additional Sh3.5 billion in the revised 2019-20 public expenditure plans. 

• Groups say digital surveillance powers, such as obtaining access to mobile phone location data, threatens privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of association.

International Centre for Policy and Conflict executive director Ndung'u Wainaina during amedia briefing at Stanley hotel on Friday.
BE TRANSPARENT: International Centre for Policy and Conflict executive director Ndung'u Wainaina during amedia briefing at Stanley hotel on Friday.
Image: KARUGA WA NJUGUNA

Human Rights groups have warned that the state's heightened surveillance measures to monitor citizens during the coronavirus pandemic could result in abuse.

The groups said that an increase in state digital surveillance, such as obtaining access to mobile phone location data, threatens privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of association.

The International Centre for Policy and Conflict and the National Civil Society Reference Group cautioned that such surveillance could degrade trust in authorities and undermine the effectiveness of any public health response.

 

The National Treasury allocated the country's National Intelligence Service an additional Sh3.5 billion in the revised 2019-20 public expenditure plans.

The country's spy agency could have been enlisted by the Ministry of Health in contact tracing of Covid-19 suspects.

There are reports that a big chunk of the money is likely to go towards tracking coronavirus contacts across the country as the government ramps up efforts to curb the virus spread.

“Kenyan government must not be the sole democracy which operates its secret security service to monitor its citizens, even in the fight against the coronavirus,” ICPC executive director Ndung'u Wainaina warned.

He urged the government to show leadership in tackling the outbreak in a way that ensures the use of digital technologies in track and monitor the population is carried out strictly in adherence to human rights principles.

“State must ensure that increased collection, retention and aggregation of personal data, including health data, is only used for the purposes of responding to the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said. 

Rights Reference Group president Suba Churchill said while the intention of the monitoring of Kenyans' contacts and location could be in good faith, some elements within the deep-state could use the information for “ulterior motives”.

“Some of the security organs are opaque and uncountable, we don't know when someone in authority over those organs might deploy them to achieve some ulterior motives,” he warned.

Churchill said the country's history is replete with situations where security organs have abused the privacy of Kenyans to carry out political assassination and execution of rights defenders.

“This is a bad practice borrowed from South Korea where, when they failed to contain Covid-19, they started to use intelligence to monitor telephone contacts and locations,” Churchill said.

He asked the state to respect human rights and the people's rights to privacy when carrying out their surveillance so that “unscrupulous elements don't access the data to harm innocent Kenyans”.

Governments across the world are said to have enlisted the services of their intelligence organs to track Covid-19 contacts.

For instance, Pakistan is said to be using a contact tracing system - developed by its intelligence services to combat terrorism - to fight coronavirus.

China, Taiwan and South Korea also use device tracking to manage quarantine and detect transgression.

However, Israel's Supreme Court ruled on April 26 that the government must bring under legislation its use of mobile phone tracking in efforts to contain coronavirus.

Edited by R.Wamochie