By Najib Mulema

By December 2017, Uganda had an estimated amount of 19 million internet users representing 43% of the total population. Mobile phone subscribers were close to 25 million. Since 2012, the telecom regulator, Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) ordered mobile operators such as MTN, Airtel, Africell and Uganda Telecom to implement a mandatory country-wide SIM card registration.

Initially, mobile phone subscribers were required to register giving out detailed personal data to agencies but now subscribers are required to present their national IDs for verification or Passports for foreigners.

The National Identification and Registration Authority (NIRA) shared data readers with telecom companies to facilitate the process.

However, according to a report commissioned last week by Unwanted Witness, a Civil Society Organization that seeks to create secure, uncensored online platforms for Ugandans, people’s communication and personal data have not been protected due to the absence of Data Protection and Privacy Law.

“In the absence of a Data Protection and Privacy Law that would provide for the protection of the rights of the people whose data is processed, there are growing concerns on how holding agencies, such as telecom companies and others collecting and processing peoples’ personal information can be held accountable,” report on Corporate Accountability of Telecom Companies stated.

Given the amount of data that telecom companies and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) collect and process in the course of their work, the report indicated that it is critical that customers’ personal information and data is kept confidential and their privacy guaranteed though without a law, clients are relying on the goodwill and self-made commitments from these companies to protect their privacy and confidentiality.

The report further revealed that over the last 10 years, the state has made several attempts, requesting and ordering telecom companies and ISPs to censure, block or intercept online communications, as well as mobile money transactions  which orders service providers have followed.

According to Mr. Anthony Katamba, the General Manager Corporate Services at MTN Uganda, they receive directives from ‘government’ from time to time to restrict online communication and that the regulator has the powers to make such directives “and we have always complied”

Unfortunately, the four telecom companies (MTN, Airtel, Africell and UTL) do not have watertight policy and terms of service that provide for the respect of human rights, including the right to privacy, personal data and freedom of expression.

Those that have such as MTN and Airtel, the policies and terms of service are only in English and not easily accessible unless a user logs onto their websites.

Meanwhile, Ms. Dorothy Mukasa, Unwanted Witness Chief Executive Officer urged government to approve a data protection law, with an independent body that enables its enforcement to protect people’s rights as well as to stop making illegal requests to telecom companies, acting only within their legal powers and respecting the Constitution and Human Rights obligations of the country.

She also tasked telecom companies to develop terms of use, privacy and data protection policies that are in an accessible manner and falls in line with their obligations of protecting their users’ human rights.