Give us your data – or else

Michael Onsando
27 August ,2019

If you’ve watched any Iron Man/ Avengers movie then you are well versed with Jarvis, Tony stark’s trusty number two computer who responds to Tony’s voice, works side by side with him and even has a few jokes up it’s sleeve. If you aren’t then you surely know about the future as imagined as a place with responsive machines and AI amped up to the power of n.

It’s slightly disappointing to leave the cinema and walk into a Kenyan court where the judge is still writing down witness testimonies by hand – asking them to slow down to the pace of their longhand.

The thing is, the gap between here and there is mainly data. Computers work on programming, they need to be taught how to read patterns, how to understand what these patterns mean and how to derive solutions from data. It follows that the only way for machines to get to the future is for the amount of data made available to them to increase.

It is in these crosshairs that the world is currently poised. Who is in charge of this data? What happens with it when we give it? Can it be leveraged against us? There is no time in the history of humanity that the sensitivity of data has been more publicly and openly discussed than the modern era. With your phone mics asking for permission to listen in to your conversations, every app asking for a “few details about you” and huduma number needing to know how many times you brush your teeth daily, we’re sensitive about who we give our data and what they do with it.

It is with this sensitivity towards data that the census process was met. A process that I was doubtful would happen given the time and effort put behind the Huduma Number process and the amount of data that was asking for. But, on Saturday 24th August we were shepherded away from the bars and into our homes so we could answer a question “where did you spend the night on the evening of August 24?” And then asked for a little more data for state purposes.

“Successful state capture networks in Kenya have had two elements. On the bureaucratic side, there is usually a coterie of favoured officials who are allowed to accumulate, concentrate and exercise power in completely unaccountable ways, often behind the shield of presidential privilege, state security or defence procurement. On the business side, there is often a clique of local businessmen allied to political insiders, or alternatively, the favoured groups are shadowy international companies whose shareholders are usually unknown. Capturing and controlling the Presidency, the source of power, and the Treasury, the source of money, is essential to fashioning the “criminal web” necessary to repurpose government for the benefit of rent-seeking elites.”

– Wachira Maina, State Capture: Why Kenya has been unable to slay the corruption dragon

When Wachira speaks of state capture in Kenya, he doesn’t speak of anything that we don’t know already. We know that Kenya is run by both the government and the “shadow government” that has access to everything that is the government. We know because we see the effects of it. We see the misappropriation of public funds and we wonder – what’s going to happen to this too?

“That CS miscommunicated this thing completely. The @KNBStats

 team that came was very helpful and very professional. And there was no compulsory question.

There was no need at all for the threats and big volume. That stuff has antagonised people for no reason at all.”

“If you have caught one of his many tirades then, like me, you have probably thought one of either two things: (1) “Bah, we’ve arrived yet again at that precarious intersection of capitalism, the consumer and the state.” Or (2) “I’m not sure I like your tone, public servant.”

Perhaps this is why the government’s favourite bully was in charge of this task. Because public trust has been eroded to the point that, our guard is up when the government asks for our ID numbers. To the point that, rather thank thinking about the importance of data to nation building, we know that the data we give will probably end up with our phones ringing as a private company tries to sell us something. Because we know that rather than using the data for national planning, allocation of resources and wealth distribution the data will most likely be used to leverage the Kenyan people as consumers to a multinational company – or something along those lines.

“Explain to Kenyans what you are doing, we are not children”

Johnson Sakaja

And maybe rather than issuing threats at that big volume this is the work that the government should be focusing on. Building public trust and finding a way to start working in tandem with the Kenyan people rather than working at loggerheads with us. To start from understanding why the lack of public trust exists and communicating from a standpoint that understands this. So far it seems like the government is not particularly concerned in creating a situation where the citizens are ever on its side. Rather citizens are dragged along as unwilling participants on whichever initiative the government decides is valid

This idea of the authoritarian state, perhaps, is why data in particular is so sensitive. Because we’ve seen how China has decided to use their data – creating a   black miroresque social surveillance system that ranks citizens as per their social credit. So it makes sense that Kenyans would be jumpy around sharing their personal data and maybe then our government should be asking itself how do we make this better? Or maybe even that might be asking for a thought too far.

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