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Zimbabwe's Big Brother technology is a threat to digital rights

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Zimbabwe's Big Brother technology is a threat to digital rights

Nhlanhla Ngwenya

09 Jul 2021

6min min read
  • Citizenship
  • Information technology

In the fourth instalment of the Digital ID Dispatches from Africa series, we have our first piece from a country partner who used the CIS Evaluation Framework to examine digital ID in Zimbabwe. Nhlanhla Ngwenya reflects on three developments that he believes provide an indication of how the country is approaching digital ID.

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hree recent and isolated events that passed with little public interest, despite their ramifications for citizens’ fundamental right to privacy, provide hints about the state of digital IDs, citizens’ data and authorities’ motives in Zimbabwe.

As the country adopts digital technologies in its governance processes, it is alarming that media, civil society and the opposition have not probed what is going on and held authorities accountable to their constitutional obligations to promote and protect citizens’ basic freedoms, Instead, issues have been reported as dissimilar in the context of glorifying the government as delivering on its public service mandate and Vision 2030. However, evidence points to the contrary.

Biometric database

On 26 May 2021, the Zimbabwean government announced that Cabinet had approved the proposed engagement of a private partner in the implementation of a National Biometric Database for the production of e-passports, national IDs and birth certificates, which will see the country increase its passport production to four million a year. This announcement, buried in a statement enthusiastically proclaiming government’s purported progress in its march towards its 2030 economic revival goals, aroused little media interest. There was no investigation into who the “private partner” was, how the tendering process was managed, and when exactly the project would be rolled out. Most importantly, there was no attempt to seek clarity on what exactly the project meant to Zimbabwe’s existing national identity registration framework and citizens’ data already stored in the country’s national database.

Instead, the hype was on government’s “positive progress” in the implementation of the National Development Strategy 1, in line with its Vision 2030 to transform Zimbabwe into an upper-middle economy, despite the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not that there's anything wrong with government’s ambitious plans. The issue is the manner in which the media and other key observers have allowed authorities to obfuscate potentially harmful effects of their project on citizens’ liberties all in the name of Vision 2030. That is not only worrying, but gives the government latitude to violate Zimbabweans’ constitutional rights unchecked.

National Data Centre

On 24 February 2021, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, accompanied by his deputies, senior ministers and politicians from his ruling party – typical of his entourage in almost all government project events – commissioned the National Data Centre, which is established under the country’s ICT Policy. The national development mantra was again used to muddy the underlying implications of this on citizens’ data and right to privacy.

According to the government’s daily mouthpiece, The Herald, the centre, which was established in collaboration with the Chinese Inspur Group and Sino-Zimbabwe, would “anchor all e-government programmes and will allow co-ordinated planning and monitoring of results”.

In his address, Mnangagwa thanked China for its “invaluable” support and “technical expertise and knowledge around e-governance”, noting that the facilities such as the National Data Centre will “ensure that Zimbabwe is not left behind” in the current development agenda where technology plays a big role and “viewed as the lifeblood of all business transaction and human interactions”.

His deputy, Constantine Chiwenga, concurred, adding that with the centre, “all government data would be housed in a single repository”.

This development passed without curiosity from the media or civil society. Rather than probe the purpose of the centre beyond the official rhetoric, the media appeared disinterested. While this was to be expected of the government-controlled dominant media, it is concerning that the private media were more interested in the presence of Mnangagwa’s second deputy Kembo Mohadi at the event. At that time, Mohadi was battling to contain audio leaks of certain scandals bordering on the abuse of office.

As it stands, Zimbabweans are none the wiser on the relevance of the centre, particularly as it relates to their personal data held by government entities. This is crucial given the interoperability between different government units. It is a matter of public knowledge that the country has an integrated data system, which is predicated on the foundational national identity registry. It is the same system that is used for mobile SIM card registration, vehicle registration, voter registration and civil servants auditing among other personal identification processes. The question that remains unanswered is what is the relationship of the centre with this integrated data system? As hinted by Chiwenga, is the centre now going to be the repository of all the data held by government, including personal information? If so, what are the mechanisms to ensure safe and secure storage, usage, sharing and disposal of that data?

"There are fears that data collected through the projects will most likely be used for surveillance of government opponents and crushing dissent."

These issues, among a host of others, remain unaddressed, leaving the majority of citizens in the dark on the likely effect of the centre on their right to data protection and privacy. While this may reflect the reluctance of the government-controlled media to put their handlers on the spot, it may generally underline the lack of media capacity and comprehension of the intersectionality of these digitisation programmes and citizens' rights as well as the role of global actors such as China in the scheme of things.

It is for this reason that, despite the presence of China in government’s digital programmes, the media have made no effort to examine the projects to get details of the scope and nature of agreements and developments. This is especially concerning given the poor record China holds in the deployment of digital tools to curtail online freedoms and suppress critique.

Dark deal with China

One would have hoped that the Zimbabwean government’s 2019 deal with China’s CloudWalk Technology would have spurred the media and civil society to probe such digital programmes and demand accountability, because unlike other projects, the implications of this particular deal were apparent.

As part of the deal signed under China’s Belt and Road Initiative in Africa, CloudWalk Technology was to provide a mass facial recognition technology, which would in essence give the company access to a black racial mix in the development and expansion of Chinese surveillance technology. Besides CCTV cameras, the project was to include “smart financial systems, airport, railway station and security and a national facial database”. Christopher Mutsvangwa, Zimbabwe’s former ambassador to China and an advisor to Mnangagwa, celebrated the partnership with Zimbabwe’s “all-weather friend”, noting that the benefits were not only to ensure smoother passenger processing at the country’s border posts and points of entry, but also to help government build a smart financial banking system. He was quoted as saying: "An ordinary Zimbabwean probably won't believe that you can buy your groceries or pay your electricity bill by scanning your face, but this is where technology is taking us and as the government, we are happy because we are moving with the rest of the world."

No doubt this would be good if it was only meant to facilitate ease of doing business and improve services for citizens. However, the underlying sinister motives are hard to miss, precisely because of the opacity surrounding the scope and roll out of the project as well as the damning record of Chinese investment in surveillance technology to erode citizens’ rights and Zimbabwe’s chequered human rights record. There are fears that data collected through the projects will most likely be used for surveillance of government opponents and crushing dissent. These misgivings over the project are based on reports of other technology projects on the continent by Chinese firms allegedly meant to entrench the state's spying on its citizens as well as the publicly held suspicion that similar Chinese technology has been used to manipulate the vote in the past.

It is therefore critical that the media, civil society and even the opposition in parliament highlight these issues. This will help ensure that the Zimbabwean government is pressured to be accountable and comply with the country’s constitution as well as international instruments on balancing technological developments with the protection of citizens’ digital rights. Failure to do so will create room for the adoption of policies and investment into projects that will severely erode Zimbabweans’ basic online freedoms with no one raising the alarm. And given the character of the Zimbabwean government, it is best that citizens actively stand guard over their rights pre-emptively instead of acting after the fact and pursuing the reversal of policies through captured state institutions and appellant bodies. This approach has not worked in the past and indications are that it will not work in the immediate future.

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The opinions expressed in this series are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA.

(Main image: Getty)