Ghanaian Authorities Now Have Access to Telecom Subscriber Data for Contact-Tracing, Can African Govts be Trusted with Privacy?


A court ruling in Accra has given the Ghanaian government rights to access subscriber data from telecommunications companies. The sharing of data is for the purpose of tracing people who may have come in contact with COVID-19 patients in the country.

In March, Ghana’s president, Nana Akufo-Addo had asked telcos to collaborate with the government to achieve better contact tracing.

To stop the collaboration, a private citizen took Ghana’s biggest telcos to court. The citizen filed an injunction order asking Vodafone and MTN Ghana to suspend data-sharing with the government, saying it breached domestic and international privacy laws.

The high court judge, Stephen Oppong, while ruling in favour of the telcos said “it would go against citizen’s overall wellbeing for the court to stop telecommunications providers from sharing data with authorities amid a pandemic.”

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Digital contact tracing has been employed by other countries to effectively track, test, and isolate people who have come into contact with COVID patients. Besides working with network providers to analyze cell tower connections, other approaches to it include using Bluetooth-based contact tracing apps, QR code scanners, and CCTV footage.

In Nigeria, the government has not yet asked telcos to make subscriber data available for contact tracing. The last interference of government with user data was in October 2019 when telcos were mandated to record the voice calls and other communications carried out by users in the country on a daily basis.

Suggested read: NCC Mandates Telcos to Monitor and Record Calls and Other Communication on Their Networks or Risk N5 Million Fine

What if Nigerian authorities want subscriber data from telcos?

A request for access to subscriber data by the authorities is unlikely to be rejected in Nigeria, especially since MTN Ghana has set a precedent for other MTN branches and network operators.

After the government has been enabled to monitor citizens through data from telcos, the question becomes ‘what stops the government from using it for political purposes?’ There isn’t an agency in place that oversees the use of subscriber data by the government to make sure user privacy is not abused.

Can the government be trusted to use the data only for COVID-19 contact tracing?

Successful approaches to accessing data require trust for the authorities, and a willingness to give up privacy in exchange of it. Neither of these two factors are abundantly present in Nigerians as shown by reactions to bills like the Social Media bill, infectious diseases bill, and the increase in VAT, among others.

Another African country that has employed digital contact tracing is Rwanda. The authorities use mobile phone data profiles to trace people who have had contacts with COVID-19 patients.

Its system works in a way that when someone tests positive for Covid-19, the phone profiles are used to retrieve data provided by the closest transmission towers. The data is then used to track their movement.

A designated team tracks other phones that came in close contact with the infected person’s phone using movement analytics. Deeper data analysis is then carried out and information obtained helps Rwanda’s COVID-19 command centre to trace the people and contact them for testing.

Rwanda, Ghana, South Korea, and other countries who have used the digital contact tracing show that it is an effective method that goes a long way in curbing the spread of the virus. Using people’s data is largely between the authorities and the telcos.

Beyond the fact that contact tracing is helpful, having an overseeing committee that ensures that data is not illegally or inappropriately used, and that it is not accessed except when necessary will help citizens better understand and accept the need for the data privacy breach.

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