Africa: Encryption and the New Price of Personal Information

African customers are now able to enjoy tougher digital security standards when they communicate online, but the battle for personal privacy isn’t over yet.

Digital encryption protocols are the security perimeter that makes it possible for communications companies in Africa to offer their customers the highest level of digital security possible. Without proper encryption, vital information such as bank account numbers, application log-ins and user data becomes vulnerable. Encryption protects the digital information that is most important to us, but recent controversies involving international companies such as WhatsApp and Apple have increasingly called the validity of that protection into question.

WhatsApp is among the most popular mobile applications in Africa, and although the company is currently facing trouble in its American headquarters, the international legal proceedings involving encryption may soon have a significant impact on African communications companies as well. Like many advanced digital security applications, WhatsApp utilizes end-to-end encryption to provide a private connection for anyone using the app. End-to-end encryption means that only the two people who are intentionally communicating on the app can read what is said. No one, not even WhatsApp company officials, can intercept those messages.

Director of the United State’s Federal Bureau of Investigation, James Comey, spoke out recently on his concerns regarding commercial access to encrypted message protection. “WhatsApp has over a billion customers, overwhelmingly good people, but in that billion customers are terrorists and criminals, so that now-ubiquitous feature of all WhatsApp products will affect both sides of the house,” Comey said. “Inevitably, it will be an impediment to criminal wiretap orders in criminal cases and national security orders in national security cases. Whether there will be litigation about it down the road, I don’t know. But that collision is happening just the way it’s happening in data at rest.”

Comey is forgetting the fact that taming technological advancement is a near-impossible feat.

In the rapidly expanding “Internet of Things”, more and more physical objects are connecting to the wider web. The details of what these newly-Internet enabled tools gather about you and your online activities can be extensive. This brings new opportunities for convenience, but all citizens should be aware of the various security risks smart devices pose. As our devices grow smarter, they are transmitting more personal information than ever. Without proper encryption, that information could fall into the wrong hands and be used for all kinds of unauthorized purposes.

Apple’s security encryption works in a similar way and is embedded in all Apple products – from the ubiquitous iPhone to their “smart” watches and other home technologies. WhatsApp (owned by Facebook) and Apple continue to battle in court around the world for the right to encrypt and protect user data. In the case of WhatsApp, billions of messages are transmitted daily. Without encryption, any of the personal or identifying information in those messages could be used by identity thieves or anyone wishing to surveil personal communication. Transmitting unencrypted data across devices can permit the discovery of a certain user’s physical location, the footprints of their digital activity, information about their physical computer hardware, and other details. Typically, users are completely unaware that their personal data is unprotected in such a way, and do not feel pressed to take any extra precautions.

African technology consumers should remember is that all technology applications come at a cost. If you as the user are not paying for an application or product, then you are seen as the product by that company. Even with companies fighting to protect their right to encrypt data, many of those same companies are already harvesting and selling user data. The complexities of digital applications raise questions that Africans and technology consumers around the world will have to answer. Even companies seeking to protect user information in court often farm data to the highest bidder. To protect their data, technology users should think carefully about the level of digitization that is necessary for each product they buy and remember that nothing is truly free in the digital era.