CIO East Africa (Nairobi)

22 July 2014

Africa: Kenya Leads Africa in Requesting Users' Data From Google

Quite a number of African governments are keeping a very close eye on the online activities of their citizens with Kenya topping Africa in requesting users' data from Google.

Outside Africa, governments have been aggressively ferreting out hitherto anonymous digital users and activists. Last year Google received 53,356 requests for user information, a 26% increase on 2012.

Over the last four years, the Internet giant says such requests are up 120%.

In Africa, Kenya had the most requests for such information, lodging in eight demands in the last half of the year. In the first half of the year it did not lodge any requests. Eight is low by global standards, but stands out in a continent where most state bureaucrats probably wouldn't even know where to begin to make such requests.

Google says it complied with 63% of Kenya's requests, either wholly or partially. Google began publishing its Transparency Report in 2009, with data for the first half of this year due anytime.

The fact that electronic surveillance is catching on in Africa recently came from an unlikely source - the Somalia extremist militant group Al Shabaab.

Few blacklisted organisations in Africa run as slick a media machine as Al-Shabaab. Concerned that they were under surveillance, the group last month ordered its members to change their mobile phone numbers. Towards the end of last year, the Shabaab banned its key members from using smartphones.

Mid last month, Kenya's police reportedly unmasked the man behind a "fake" Al-Shabab Twitter account that had been used to claim responsibility for various attacks in coastal Kenya, with the latest being massacres at Mpeketoni and nearby villages in which over 70 people were killed.

According to police, Ishmael Omondi had been using the Twitter handle @HSMPress to claim responsibility for attacks in Kenya. Al-Shabaab have used a similarly-named handle or variants, most famously during the Westgate attack in Nairobi last year.

Since the Arab Spring three years ago, social media has been heralded as the ace card of today's opposition and civil organisations, with grassroots movements all over the continent finding it the perfect platform to organise, protest and complain on Twitter and Facebook.

Stumped governments also tried to play by the rules, with Google reporting a global rise in requests by law enforcement agencies to take down content from its services, with nearly 4,000 requests in the first half of last year.

The majority of reasons centered on defamation, and privacy, but there has also been a rise in citation of government criticism, hate speech and national security.

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