Kenyans are protesting plans by tax authority to snoop on their online chats

Data Protection Act. What Act?
Data Protection Act. What Act?
Image: REUTERS/Noor Khamis
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

There is outrage across Kenya after the country’s tax authority announced on May 11 that it plans to start mining data from digital devices in a bid to combat tax and financial fraud.

In a notice for tenders of suppliers of software, the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) calls for an application that should be able to scan through silos of data in emails, desktops, laptops, tablets, hard disks, micro-SIM ID Cloning cards, smartphones of all operating systems and even across social media accounts. The software is to be purchased at the cost of $280,000.

This move, in one of the few countries in Africa that has data protection laws, has been met with anger and consternation by Kenyans.

Violation of data privacy

The recent move is an escalation on an announcement by the taxman in November last year that it will begin monitoring social media posts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, and WhatsApp in a bid to arrest Kenyans who have been posting their lavish lifestyles, cars, and assets online without paying tax for them.

Since the onset of the covid-19 pandemic, many Kenyans have taken to social commerce platforms such as Facebook Marketplace, WhatsApp for Business, Instagram, and Twitter to sell their products.

Experts deem the move to be illegal, unconstitutional and intrusive.

“No legislation allows KRA to look into people’s messages. It is using internal policy to infringe into Kenyans’ privacy. The problem with indiscriminate communication is that you gather sensitive data that is even irrelevant to the core mandate of KRA,” Mugambi Laibuta,  an advocate and data protection lecturer tells Quartz.

He adds that for the National Intelligence Service to carry out any kind of information surveillance, it needs authorization from the inspector general of Police and a court warrant.

Nairobi-based advocate and governance expert Janet Norman told Quartz, “They have no right whatsoever to access private data without user consent. And even some platforms like WhatsApp are encrypted end to end, unless they want to engage Meta. Google and Safaricom won’t just let KRA access the emails, texts, and calls without consent.” 

Corruption at KRA is a major source of anger to many Kenyans

With high unemployment rates and businesses still reeling from the economic effects of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, the move by KRA could not have come at a more inopportune time. This coupled with a 2018 scandal that saw KRA accused of stealing millions of dollars of tax in just a few months, adds to the frustration felt by many at the move to widen the tax net.

“If it wants to cast its tax net wider, then the government needs to create a conducive business environment where jobs are easy to create. Many Kenyans are unemployed and that reduces their tax base,” Roselyn Kiilu, a Nairobi based beautician says, adding that most Kenyans only use social media for emotional relief as inflation keeps raising the prices of goods and services.

It is yet to be seen how KRA implements its plan over the next months with elections coming up in a few months and the irony of the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner educating Kenyans about their rights to private and personal data, and even giving them the liberty to report data breaches through an online portal.

“We are implementing a framework for data breach complaint resolution and another one for carrying out periodic system audits to ensure compliance,” Kenya’s data commissioner Immaculate Kassait told the Daily Nation newspaper last year when commenting on a survey that showed that 64% of Kenyan companies are not aware of data privacy laws governing their business operations.

According to Timothy Oriedo, chief executive of Predictive Analytics, a data science startup in Nairobi, the social media data belongs to platform owners and KRA risks litigation from users if they access it illegally.

“With the current global and local data governance and protection mechanisms in place, this is not feasible unless the taxman wants to own the messaging platforms to gain exclusive access,” Oriedo tells Quartz.