Internet shutdown: The other face of VPNs

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So, your ministry threatens to arrest those accessing social media but you go ahead and post on social media! Who are you posting for?”

This was one of the 158 responses to a tweet by Uganda’s Minister of ICT and National Guidance Judith Nabakooba on January 24, 2021.  

Nabakooba was one of the government officials who found themselves the target of harsh criticism on social media platforms after they ordered internet service providers to shut down access.  

After Facebook closed accounts linked to government officials, Uganda shut down the internet in the middle of a hotly contested presidential election between longtime incumbent President Yoweri Museveni and singer turned opposition leader Bobi Wine.

Government spokesperson Ofwono Opondo later cited “national security” concerns for the unprecedented internet shutdown imposed on January 13, hours to the national elections.

They left millions of internet users unable to send emails, search the web, or use Facebook, WhatsApp, and other communication platforms.

Uganda currently has 18.8 million Internet subscribers, who, in the period between January and March used at least 49 billion MBs of broadband Internet.

While thousands of Ugandans have still kept online through the use of virtual private networks (VPN), there is growing fear among tech experts many have unknowingly surrendered their data privacy to unknown people.

Experts say while a VPN will protect a user’s connection to the internet from being spied or detected, users can still get hacked when using a VPN.

“Using VPNs in our daily lives creates an addiction but they siphon our data in form of names, addresses to do behavioral analytics for marketing and profiling. This information is transferred to third party users or the makers without the users’ consent,” says Chris Kalema, the Lead Technologist at Unwanted Witness. 

“VPN applications are free but they have permissions and pre-installed trackers that users cannot control or uninstall by design and therefore cannot be trusted,” he adds.

He notes that VPNs are designed with codes that have trackers that the users may never know and unfortunately Ugandans are using them without any clarity. 

Although the government has partially lifted the internet shut down, all social media platforms remain inaccessible, save for those using VPNs.

Below is a list of some of the affected services:

Companies encourage users to be cautious

Some companies, for instance, those in the financial sector have asked internet users to be cautious while using VPNs as they may be victims of data leaks and silent hacks.

Users have encouraged to change their passwords on a regular basis and also advised “against using VPN when you need to access the non-blocked services like Email or Online banking, etc.”

For instance, in a notice on Twitter, Stanbic Bank said: “Please endeavor to turn off your VPN application while accessing our Internet Banking Services (Stanbic App and Online Banking). This is to prevent hacking and cyber-attacks and to keep your banking safe.

Data Privacy Policy

Dorothy Mukasa the Executive Director of Unwanted Witness Uganda notes that one of the qualities of a trusted data collector is the ability to be transparent and accountable to the data subjects as enshrined in Section 3 (a) and (f) of the Data Protection and Privacy Act 2019.

They also allege that statutory agencies that use people’s data, like the Electoral Commission or NIRA which gather, use, disclose and manage a person’s data, do not have a Privacy Policy. 

“This lack of transparency led to voters missing out on the voting exercise because the voters’ register was unclean with voters’ names repeated, name-face mismatches and deletion of some voters’ names from the register”, the statement claims.

It also urges the government of Uganda to expedite the enactment of Data Protection and Privacy regulations for effective enforcement of the Data Protection and Privacy Act 2019 and to fully restore internet to avoid data manipulation risks that come with the use of VPN.  

Additional reporting by URN

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