Online privacy advocates have expressed concern over the hiring of Cambridge Analytica — the data firm that claimed to spur the electoral successes of both President Donald Trump and the “Brexit” campaign — by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta’s party to help him in his bid for reelection in August 2017.
Kenyatta was elected in March 2013 after garnering 50.51 percent of the vote. However, two groups — the Africa Centre for Open Governance and the Coalition For Reform and Democracy — filed petitions with the country’s Supreme Court contesting the election. The high court dismissed the challenges that same month, but many opposition supporters still believe the election was rigged. In 2007, another contested presidential election led to widespread bloodshed and displacement.
The country saw violence during the 2017 primaries, with support and opposition for political parties breaking down along ethnic lines.
Amidst all this, U.S.-based Cambridge Analytica reportedly occupies a whole floor of a building owned by President Kenyatta’s Jubilee Alliance coalition. The company is currently suing the British publication The Guardian over its reporting on its alleged connections to the right-wing web site Breitbart.com and the Brexit movement, which included this description of its operations by a former employee:
It was like working for MI6 [the British spy agency]. Only it’s MI6 for hire. It was very posh, very English, run by an old Etonian and you got to do some really cool things. Fly all over the world. You were working with the president of Kenya or Ghana or wherever. It’s not like election campaigns in the west. You got to do all sorts of crazy shit.
The British advocacy group Privacy International (PI) criticized Cambridge Analytica’s involvement with Kenyatta’s party in a blog post, saying that it merits “further scrutiny” in part because of the dangers of gathering data in a country where tensions continue to fester among its various ethnic groups.
Profiling individual Kenyans — of the kind that Cambridge Analytica’s technology would do — is particularly sensitive in this context. In Kenya, someone’s name is often all you need to discern their ethnicity. Gathering such personal data on millions of Kenyan citizens is highly problematic, especially since it is unclear how such data will be stored and who will have access to it.
Claire Lauterbach, a PI researcher, further explained in an email:
Profiling allows anybody with access to enough personal data to learn highly intimate details about you, most of which you might have never decided to disclose in the first place. If Cambridge Analytica’s work in Kenya is just slightly similar to what we have learned about their work in the US and Europe, they will be creating a database of highly sensitive information about a considerable share of a country’s population.
Grace Mutung’u, a fellow with Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, said that an analysis she conducted with a colleague supported PI’s concerns. Mutung’u, who is Kenyan, told us:
Our main concern is that unlike in other cases where media manipulators have to harvest data from digital footprints, the government of Kenya is custodian to a lot of data that can be used to their advantage.
Specifically, she said that the government already has access to voters’ information through the use of national Identity cards and mandatory cell phone registration (which requires proof of both identity and residence), ensuring that “in our case, the government owns the data; it does not need to mine it.”
Mutung’u also pointed to a voter registration drive that Kenyatta’s coalition party conducted in January 2017, which focused on party “strongholds.” More than 238,000 voters were registered during the exercise. That same month, Interior Secretary Joseph Nkaissery said officials who were “undermining” Kenyatta’s administration would be removed.
Both she and Privacy International also shared concerns over the lack of a data protection law in Kenya even as Kenyatta’s administration has expanded its ability to collect data. To reassure voters concerning their privacy, Mutung’u said:
[The] current administration can come out and be transparent about what it is using our data for, how secure that data is, etc. They can assure the public that they will pass the data protection bill but even at present, they should assure us that they are protecting our privacy as it is a constitutional right.
Election observers have speculated that Kenyatta could face another contested election after the 8 August 2017 vote if opposition candidate Raila Odinga (who filed one of the petitions contesting the 2013 results) is the beneficiary of an increase in voter turnout.