From data vulnerability to data sovereignty: Africa’s path to digital security, By Dovish Okojie

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In an era dominated by digital technology, data has become an invaluable resource driving innovation and economic growth worldwide. While these technological advancements have ushered in unprecedented opportunities and development, they have also brought forth a significant challenge: the unchecked practice of data harvesting by big tech companies. The constant harvesting of vast amounts of data from individuals and organisations around the world by these tech giants has given rise to pressing concerns over personal privacy, data sovereignty and national security. The increasing role of technology in everyday life has also given immense power, access and influence to big tech companies and this must be checked.

All these draw attention to the pressing need for the Nigerian government, other African countries, and the African Union, to prioritise data protection. Next is a detailed examination of the issues at hand and practical steps to control data harvesting.

The Data Harvesting Landscape in Africa

 

The African continent has experienced rapid digital transformation in recent years, with increased access to smartphones and the internet. This transformation has brought both opportunities and challenges. On one hand, it has enabled African countries to leapfrog into the digital age, driving economic growth and improving access to essential services. On the other hand, it has exposed African citizens to data harvesting practices by big tech companies, often without their informed consent.

Data harvesting occurs when companies collect, analyse, and monetise personal information without the explicit knowledge or consent of individuals. This practice is prevalent across the globe, but African countries have unique vulnerabilities due to the lack of comprehensive data protection laws, limited digital literacy, and a growing dependence on foreign technology companies.

The Nigerian Experience

Nigeria, as one of the largest and most technologically advanced countries in Africa, faces significant challenges when it comes to data protection. While the Nigerian Data Protection Regulation (NDPR) was introduced in 2019 to regulate data processing activities in the country, its enforcement and effectiveness remain limited. Many companies still collect and misuse personal data without the fear of significant consequences.

One glaring example is the proliferation of mobile applications that gain access to users’ contact lists, messages, and personal information without transparent consent processes. Such practices not only violate the privacy of individuals but also put national security at risk. Nigeria must prioritise enforcing the NDPR and strengthening its legal framework to hold companies accountable for data breaches and unauthorised data harvesting.

Data Sovereignty and National Security

Beyond individual privacy concerns, data harvesting also poses threats to national security and sovereignty. When foreign tech companies collect massive amounts of data from African citizens, they gain significant influence over the continent’s digital infrastructure and potentially compromise sensitive information. This issue becomes even more critical as African governments increasingly rely on digital tools for governance, national security, and economic development.

To safeguard their sovereignty, African nations must prioritise the development of indigenous digital solutions and data centres that ensure the secure storage and processing of sensitive data. This approach not only protects national interests but also fosters economic growth by promoting local innovation and reducing dependency on foreign tech giants.

The Role of the African Union

 

The African Union (AU) needs to play a pivotal role in coordinating efforts to address data protection on a continental scale. The AU has recognised the importance of data governance through initiatives like the African Union Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection. However, more must be done to harmonise data protection laws across African nations and facilitate collaboration in addressing data harvesting by big tech companies.

The AU should work towards the establishment of a unified data protection framework that encompasses all African nations. This framework would provide a common set of principles, standards, and enforcement mechanisms, ensuring that data protection is taken seriously across the continent. Collaboration among African countries can also help in negotiating fair agreements with foreign tech companies and promoting African-owned data solutions.

Building Digital Literacy

Another key aspect of addressing data harvesting is enhancing digital literacy among citizens of Africa. Many individuals are unaware of the risks associated with sharing personal data online or using digital services without adequate safeguards. Public awareness campaigns and educational programmes can empower people to make informed choices about their digital activities and data sharing practices.

Governments, in partnership with civil society organisations and the private sector, should invest in digital literacy initiatives. These efforts should target both urban and rural populations to bridge the digital divide and ensure that all citizens have the knowledge and skills needed to protect their data effectively.

Transparency and Informed Consent

One of the fundamental principles of data protection is ensuring that individuals provide informed and explicit consent before their data is collected and processed. To combat data harvesting by big tech companies, African governments should establish stringent regulations that require companies to be transparent about their data practices and obtain clear consent from users.

In addition to legal regulations, governments should encourage the development of user-friendly consent mechanisms that enable individuals to understand how their data will be used and to make informed decisions. This approach not only protects individuals’ rights but also fosters trust between users and service providers.

Strengthening Data Protection Enforcement

Enforcing data protection regulations is essential to curbing data harvesting by big tech companies. Governments in Africa must invest in the capacity to investigate and penalise companies that violate data protection laws. This includes establishing specialised data protection agencies or units within existing regulatory bodies.

Governments should consider implementing strict penalties for companies found guilty of data breaches, such as fines and sanctions. A robust enforcement framework serves as a deterrent to companies that might otherwise engage in data harvesting practices without consequence.

International Cooperation

Addressing data harvesting is not a challenge unique to Africa. It is a global issue that requires international cooperation. African nations should engage with international organisations, governments, and stakeholders to develop a unified approach to data protection that transcends borders.

Collaboration with countries that have robust data protection regulations, such as those in the European Union, can provide valuable insights and support in building comprehensive data protection frameworks. African nations can also advocate for international agreements that hold big tech companies accountable for their data harvesting practices.

The data protection landscape in Africa is at a critical juncture. The rapid digitisation of the continent presents immense opportunities for growth and development, but it also exposes African citizens to the risks of data harvesting by big tech companies.

If the practical steps above are taken, and data protection becomes a priority, African nations can harness the benefits of the digital age while ensuring that the rights and interests of their citizens are protected and respected. In doing so, they will not only assert their sovereignty but also pave the way for a brighter and more secure digital future for all Africans.

 

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