Exposed! How your pet gadgets give you away to the world

Sunday July 17 2016

Everyday millions of Kenyans happily invade their own privacy on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and video sharing app-Vine, revealing very personal details with the world while at the same time broadcasting their locations. PHOTO | FILE

Every day, millions of Kenyans visit Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. Internet shutdown would inconvenience many. PHOTO | FILE | AFP 

By VINCENT ACHUKA
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Odds are you will be monitored today. Many times over from the moment you wake up, as you are reading this story, and in almost everything else that you will do today.

Switch on your phone and the mobile network provider will immediately know where you slept even if you manage to lie to your spouse. Flip through video stream channels on your smart TV and Google will instantly know your preferences and match them to your account, which can be accessed by third parties.

Step outside your front door and chances are you will be part of the cast in a selfie taken by a stranger and uploaded on the Internet for everyone to see without your permission. If this does not happen, you may be captured by Google or Microsoft as they update their respective mapping services and still end up on the Internet.

Take a ride in a matatu and its CCTV cameras will record every twitch you make as you sulk about the traffic on your way to work. Or if you are driving, your car will transmit its location on real time basis using its Global Positioning System (GPS). All this time, your number plate will be recorded and time stamped every moment you pass a traffic camera.

In the malls, in the office, in the streets, restaurants, clubs, bars and right inside your bedroom, it is increasingly becoming difficult to hide. As technology continues to increase its grip on our lives, inexpensive, ever watchful digital sensors – some of which we think we can’t do without and always carry in our pockets – are turning everyone into a Person of Interest. 

“Person of Interest” is an American science fiction television series about how the government of the world’s superpower is using a mass surveillance computer system that relays what everyone is doing at every hour in order to prevent crime.

In Kenya, this reality came to the fore when police investigating the murder of Nairobi businessman Jacob Juma two months ago released images of his last moments as captured by cameras placed across the city.

CCTV images showing Jacob Juma driving on Uhuru Highway. PHOTO | COURTESY

CCTV images showing Jacob Juma driving on Uhuru Highway. PHOTO | COURTESY

Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) and Intelligent Video Surveillance (IVS) cameras were able to accurately show the roads the businessman used from 7.34 pm to 8.14 pm on that night including the fact that he had a female passenger at some point who was dropped near a restaurant in the CBD.

A similar scenario replayed itself last week when preliminary investigations into the murder of lawyer Willy Kimani, his client and a taxi driver showed that the vehicle they had boarded from Mavoko law courts before they disappeared was captured by CCTV cameras on June 23, at midday, near Cabanas on Mombasa Road.

The car was later spotted  on Lang’ata Road before it got into the Southern by-pass heading to Kikuyu before being found abandoned in Kamirithu village in Tigoni.

In court, the Law Society of Kenya (LSK) and Safaricom are currently on a standoff over an alleged refusal by the telecommunications giant to provide sufficient data in the murder probe of the human rights lawyer.

LSK lawyer Charles Kanjama told the High Court last week that “the data provided by Safaricom is incomplete because there is no SMS data either and all forensic tools to tie suspects to the crime were not supplied”.

Such revelations and conflicts according to technology experts are the future as the world increases its use of digital sensors which will continue to push the monitoring of human activity far beyond what the inventor of the computer, Charles Babbage, had in mind when he introduced the information age.

“Over the next couple of years, the volume of data generated by digital sensors will touch nearly every aspect of our lives,” says Mr Dennis Makori, the chief executive of OnPhone Group.

A digital sensor is a device that detects and responds to some type of input from the physical environment. This could be light, heat, motion, moisture, pressure, location or any one of a great number of other environmental phenomena.

“The output is generally a signal that is converted to human-readable display at the sensor location or transmitted electronically over a network for reading or further processing. Like when you update Facebook using your phone and your exact location is attached to the post,” says Mr Makori.

In the new information and technology age, privacy is an outdated concept and what was once considered invasive has now become normal. Some of this information ends up in the wrong hands who may use it to track you down, steal from you, blackmail, frame or steal from you. PHOTO | FILE

In the new information and technology age, privacy is an outdated concept and what was once considered invasive has now become normal. Some of this information ends up in the wrong hands who may use it to track you down, steal from you, blackmail, frame or steal from you. PHOTO | FILE

Apart from cellphones and CCTVs, laptop web cameras, employee ID cards, credit cards, video game motion sensors, passports, medical insurance cards, smart TVs, smart refrigerators, microwaves and basically almost “Everyday Object” that has access to the Internet can and will transmit information about you at any time even without your permission.

Data from the Kenya Bureau of Statistics indicates that Kenya’s Internet penetration stands at 54.8 per cent of the population, or 22.3 million Internet users, which is 14 per cent higher than the global average of 40 per cent.

Thus everyday millions of Kenyans happily invade their own privacy on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and video sharing app-Vine, revealing very personal details with the world while at the same time broadcasting their locations. In the new information and technology age, privacy is an outdated concept and what was once considered invasive has now become normal.

Some of this information ends up in the wrong hands who may use it to track you down, steal from you, blackmail, frame or steal from you; sometimes with disastrous results.

Charles Muli discovered this the hard way. During the Easter weekend last year, he travelled out of Nairobi to visit his in-laws. Like almost everyone else who has a social media account does these days whenever they do something worth mentioning, the journey would not have been complete without a post on his Facebook page proudly announcing to the world that he would not be in Nairobi during the short holiday.

“Ninathi kwa muthonua onaethiwa kwi mbua. Ninye usu muthonua  (I have gone to visit my in-laws; even with the heavy rains, I am coming),” reads a post he entered using his native Kikamba on April 17 at 2.48 pm last year that has been retrieved by Lifestyle. A selfie, a picture of a bus and a road completed what seemed like the perfect way to brag.

Two days later, on April 19 when he allegedly returned to Nairobi, the mood changed.

“It’s unfortunate that for the first time guys stormed my house and went away with my goods when I was away, but it is ok,” he wrote.

Last month, Evans Gikunja, a web developer at the Radio Africa Group, resigned after a series of screenshots of alleged conversations between him and a user only known as “Elixir” through chatting application WhatsApp leaked on Twitter.

TECHNOLOGY FIGHTING CRIME

The screenshots by Elixir, who claimed that Mr Gikunja owed him some money, showed the web developer boasting of a myriad of sexual escapades with several women, linked his boss as having a mistress, and accused a senior female employee of making sexual advances at him.

In another related incident narrated to Lifestyle, an unscrupulous M-Pesa agent in Nairobi recalled a Sh10,000 transaction that had just been made by a customer. When the customer went back to complain, the agent declined ever meeting or knowing the customer, creating a commotion.

The customer then made a complaint to Safaricom. The mobile company easily solved what could have been a complex matter after it determined that the agent’s and customer’s phones were in proximity when the transaction was made.

But just as criminals can use technology in order to commit crime, security experts advise that law enforcement agencies and the government must stay ahead of them as technology-aided crime will only increase.

“Thanks to dramatic technological advances, surveillance monitoring can provide nearly global coverage, exposing the everyday lives of ordinary people; in the workplace, at schools and basically everywhere so long as there is Internet connectivity,” says James Ndung’u, a security expert.

“This ‘Leave no Data’ approach is working very well in developed countries where companies profit from your data by developing new products targeted at you based on your likes and dislikes. This is as governments use this data efficiently to profile its citizens with the aim of fighting crime,” he says.

In Kenya, the government in conjunction with Safaricom last year rolled out 1,800 high definition street cameras in Nairobi and Mombasa that are linked to the Integrated Communication, Command and Control Centre (IC3) within the National Police Service, a first in East and Central Africa.

Police Inspector-General Joseph Boinnet notes that this system, which uses 4G Internet, has become a game changer in the fight against crime in the areas which have been covered.

“All emergency calls from across the country are received at one central place and field officers are informed for action. For Nairobi and Mombasa, live-streams of whatever is happening is monitored at the centre and the necessary directives given,” he says.

Data recently released by KNBS showed Nairobi, where the system is concentrated, had a 34 per cent reduction in crime last year with 4,383 reported incidents compared to 6,732 in 2014.

Nevertheless, legal experts say the technicalities around the use of electronic evidence in a court of law in Kenya are still vague and courts usually treat them with care.

“Compared to physical or other forms of exhibit evidence, the admissibility of electronic evidence is relatively more difficult because it is hard to trace signs of tampering,” Charles Mwalimu, a criminal lawyer, tells Lifestyle.

He adds: “It can be changed or manipulated much more easily than paper or other forms of evidence without having any obvious trace of such alteration.”

But as the criminal and justice system makes its baby steps in the adoption of technology, other arms of government like the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) and the Higher Education Loans Board (HELB) are already using data collected using digital sensors to track down tax and loan defaulters by using social media.

KRA and Safaricom are currently involved in a standoff over the taxman’s request to the mobile giant to allow it unfettered access to its subscribers’ M-Pesa records in order to catch tax cheats. Safaricom declined on grounds of customer confidentiality unless the law is changed.

In the US, technology giants Facebook and Google are facing suits over claims that they are using biometric data collected from their users and submitting it to government authorities without the consent of their users.

So, your every movement is being monitored, and soon – maybe – your every action. Welcome to the Information Age!