Personal data: how the “influence industry” crosses Africa?

“Changing the behavior of targets (voters). This is how a former head of Cambridge Analytica sums up the role of this British data analysis firm in the documentary The Great Hak: the Cambridge Analytica case. The following illustration is cold in the back. During the 2010 presidential election in Trinidad and Tobago in 2010, Cambridge Analytica intervened in favor of the predominantly Indian party (UNC) opposed to the “party for blacks”, as explained in a (non-public) video presentation from Cambridge Analytica. The technique ? “We told the client: ‘you have to target young people’. We have tried to encourage abstention. The campaign had to be apolitical, because young people don’t care. She had to be responsive, because they are lazy. So we invented a campaign that said: “join the group, be cool, be part of the movement”. It was the countryside do so (do it like that) ”, details the voice-over of the Cambridge Analytica video presentation. In a snap of the fingers appear a logo (fists crossed above the head), T-shirts, choreography, songs, posters and videos on YouTube bearing the image of “Do So”. In the end, the UNC wins, and the difference in abstention between young Indians and young Afro-Caribbean is 40%.

Cambridge Analytica is known for working for candidate Donald Trump during the 2016 US presidential campaign, for the Brexit campaign. But also “in Romania, Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria”, slips Brittany Kaiser during a conference. This former head of Cambridge Analytica has since become a whistleblower. Like Christopher Wylie, data scientist and former research director of the firm. They are now documenting its methods. And evoke a “militarization” of personal data, a “multiservice propaganda machine”. Facebook is at the heart of this propaganda, allowing Cambridge Analytica to suck millions of personal data from its users, establish their profile, cross-checking their tastes, their habits, etc. And in fine, to target the undecided during the electoral polls and to influence their vote.

In the summer of 2020, Tactical Tech, an international NGO based in Germany that explores with citizens ways to mitigate the impacts of technology on society, organized a roundtable (online, Covid-19 requires) on the ” use of personal data during election campaigns in sub-Saharan Africa, with participants from Uganda, Nigeria, Kenya, Gambia, Zimbabwe, Togo, Ghana, Canada, United Kingdom and Germany , and in collaboration with the Kenyan political scientist Nanjala Nyabola. The latter described in the columns of Point Afrique the practices of firms such as Cambridge Analytica as “digital colonialism”. A notion referring according to her “to the way in which technology makes the countries of the South vulnerable to the predation of companies protected in a way from the consequences of their actions by their parent companies”. And wondered: “Would a Kenyan company be able to exert such a strong influence on a British election for example?” “. The results of this roundtable were compiled by Tactical Tech researcher Amber Macintyre in a report titled “Imports and Exports of Influence Industry in Sub-Saharan Africa”. She reveals the main lines at Point Afrique.

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Le Point Afrique: The Cambridge Analytica scandal has highlighted the use made by certain companies of social networks, and in particular of Facebook. Is this platform also a target of choice in sub-Saharan Africa, to collect citizens’ personal data and influence voters?

Amber Macintyre: Un of the most important axes of the research of Tactical Tech and our partner organizations is to show that the Cambridge Analytica scandal has not only highlighted the role of Facebook, from which the data of millions of users were captured. , but also that of hundreds of other companies, and therefore, of an industry of influence. Facebook is certainly a major player: politics and the formation of political opinions take place on Facebook in certain places. But what matters even more is that companies other than Cambridge Analytica, such as the American marketing and communications agency Harris Media (which worked for candidate Uhuru Kenyata during the Kenyan presidential campaign in 2017 Ed. .) or the American personal data broker Aristotle, [qui a travaillé pour son adversaire Raila Odinga, NDLR] use the same procedures. These companies decide to use Facebook, how to use it, and how to hijack the uses of other tools such as WhatsApp as well.

The discussions that took place during our round table also highlighted the importance of communication companies and security companies, which exchange data among themselves, but also with governments and political parties in sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, the creation, exchange and use of data in the political domain cross so many organizations, that tracing these connections leading, for example, to an advertisement on Facebook or on another platform, is more important than identifying the role of a single company.

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What types of methods are used to target citizens in the sub-Saharan African countries represented at this roundtable?

The two most common methods noted are sending bulk SMS and robocalls. These are often personalized which helps make them very effective. They target a specific person by possibly using their name in the message, and the messages appear to have been written by the sender in person (a politician, MP, senator), which creates a kind of relationship. very personal between the political party and the recipient of the message.

Besides this process, Telegram and WhatsApp groups are popular methods of distributing information. These tools are so popular that there are even “fake” versions of WhatsApp that bypass the limit of 256 people allowed in a group.

Your report includes a figure drawn from data from the BBC, which shows that the poorest categories of African citizens can access the internet and social networks. Are these communication channels today vectors of influence for particularly powerful voters in sub-Saharan Africa?

This point was the subject of many discussions during the roundtable, and it emerged that the use of the Internet and social media was not the only vector of influence. In many places in sub-Saharan Africa, the role of gatherings, billboards and personal interactions remains important. But that does not minimize the role of the Internet. For example, in Sierra Leone, where internet and social media access is poor, the few people who use the internet and access information influence those who are not connected. There is also a hybrid system that combines methods based on the use of personal data and traditional methods (meetings, posters, door-to-door). In this case, data collected from the Internet such as addresses and places of travel of people can be used strategically, to know where to place a notice board, where to organize a political rally.

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How does the public and political debate to protect citizens’ personal data take shape, and how can citizens protect themselves from these influence campaigns?

Data protection is approached in different ways. For example, in Zimbabwe, a telecommunications company has come under fire after being accused of sharing phone numbers with the ruling Zanu PF party in 2018. This debate took place mainly in the newspapers. In Kenya, there have been attempts to create a National Integrated Identity Management System (NIIMS) that would link people’s identity documents to their biometric data, cadastral records, school records, and other personal information held by various government agencies, but this could not be set up due to a debate that took place at the High Court of Kenya. The latter considers that a law on the protection of personal data should first be put in place.
Protecting citizens’ personal data involves a variety of approaches, including law, media, tech experts and citizens, and these must be held separately and collectively. Tactical Tech has published a voter guide on personal data, which lists the essential steps in this process. But the most important thing now is that this subject occupies more of the public debate.

Several presidential elections are planned for the next few weeks, in Guinea, Ivory Coast, Niger, Tanzania… Have you already identified strategies put in place by certain companies to influence voters?

These countries were rarely mentioned during our round table. We only mentioned the Pegasus monitoring software in Ivory Coast. However, two important questions have been raised regarding these countries. First, given that there is greater use of tools to influence voters in Nigeria and Kenya, how will they potentially be used in Guinea, Tanzania and other countries? Second, how can we make sure that the manner in which these methods will be relayed by the media in these countries in question?

Unfortunately, very little funding is given to study the subject in sub-Saharan Africa, and most of those who understand these issues work for companies involved in the use of personal data for political purposes. They are therefore unlikely to share information about how they operate, or to voice any criticism. We want to see a change in the direction of investments, so that academic and independent researchers in sub-Saharan Africa can follow the use of data throughout the electoral process, and not be satisfied with the information revealed after the elections. polls.

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