This article is part of UPROAR, a Small Media initiative that urges governments to address digital rights challenges in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).
In Malawi, the authorities increasingly require citizens to hand over their personal data in order to be able to intervene in everyday life, from using the mobile phone to participating in elections. However, without adequate data protection law, citizens' rights to privacy are under threat.
In 2017, the Malawian government launched a national registration system: every citizen over the age of 16 had to register with the national registry in order to obtain a national identity document. This followed the national registration and identification system of January 2010, under the National Registration Law of then-President Bingu wa Mutharika. The system took five years to go live, on August 1, 2015.
According to the National Registry Office, the national identity system would serve many purposes through the acquisition of “population information” that would allow “legislators to use data-driven planning” for development and service delivery. In the case of individuals, this would give them “proof of their nationality and personal information so they can use it to claim their benefits.”
The Voter Registration Epic
More recently, these identification registration systems were challenged in the days leading up to the Malawi elections in June, when then-opposition candidate Dr. Lazarus Chakera of the Tonse Alliance denounced that minors were being registered as part of a plot to manipulate the new elections.
In social networks, Internet users published photos of children queuing, supposedly registering in the National Registry System, synchronized with the voter registration. The National Registry Office denied these accusations.
The Coalition of Human Rights Defenders wrote to the National Registry Office to express concern about the matter, while the Malawi Human Rights Commission opened an investigation.
The Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that in the new elections, only voters previously registered in the original May 2019 election could vote and that the new voters were not eligible. The decision was made when the then president, Peter Mutharika, challenged the Constitutional Court ruling that ordered the new elections.
SIM card registration and data protection
The national identification process was then linked to the national SIM card registration process.
In January 2018, the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA) announced a mandatory national registration exercise for SIM cards.
Under the Communications Act 2016, everyone with a mobile phone number in the country is required to register their SIM card. MACRA issued a deadline of March 31, 2018 to register all SIM cards, after which all unregistered numbers would stop working. The deadline was subsequently extended to September 30 of the same year, with the requirement that all newly purchased SIM cards be registered within seven days. As of October 2018, an estimated nine million Malawians had been registered in the National Register.
MACRA said that this exercise is important for several reasons: first of all, it prevents the fraudulent practice called “SIM boxing”, it helps in recovering stolen cell phones, it offers protection against violent, threatening or hateful texts, it instills “discipline” in abusers , helps law enforcement solve crimes and checks for fraud and theft through mobile phones.
Banks and telephone companies, which provide money services on mobile phones, undertook a “know your customers” exercise in which Malawians were required to present their national identity card for all transactions; They also announced that failure to present such a document would result in the account being blocked.
In August 2019, Jimmy Kainja, an academic at the University of Malawi, pointed out that Malawians had to provide a lot of personal data, both to private and public institutions, when the country did not have a data protection law; Kanija argued, in his article entitled “Are Malawians sleepwalking into a surveillance state?” That the country needed a protection law before citizens were forced to provide all personal data.
As stated by the National Registry Office, the data collected by the National Registry includes basic data such as names and surnames, nationality, date and place of birth, data on gender, current address, height, eye color, passport number, marital status and parent information. The office also collects biometric information, 10 fingerprints, a personal photograph, and a signature.
How safe was this personal data? What guarantee was there that third parties will not have access? Who would be responsible in the event of data breaches?
In July, journalist Gregory Gondwe observed that digital surveillance was slowly making its way into Malawi although hidden in legal instruments. Gondwe argued that the country lacked a “government framework dedicated to data” that put citizens “at the mercy of those who had custody of that personal data to use it against them or, worse still, pawn it for profit.”
Information technology expert Zangaphee Chimombo told Global Voices that SIM card registration is necessary, especially when the country is considering the introduction of cryptocurrency.
However, it warns about the possible abuse of the data on these cards by telecommunications equipment and government authorities. In cases where it is necessary, “the use of valid police search warrants must be guaranteed,” Chimombo urged.
A data protection bill
According to Kainja and Gondwe, the government is currently drafting a data protection law, but it could be a very lengthy process to go through the legislative process.
Academic Edge Kanyongolo from the University of Malawi told Gondwe that this law would have a better chance of passing if there was coordinated pressure between like-minded groups, such as human rights defenders, doctors, lawyers and members of the opposition. .
As a result of the new elections, held on June 23, Dr. Lazarus Chakwera became the country's president. Since then, he has promised Malawians a new era in which the rule of law will take priority, among other decisive reforms.
Kainja hopes that the enactment of this law will be one of these reforms; It also notes that Malawians have been too willing to hand over their personal data without guaranteeing security and protection.