Safaricom and the presidential election - some technical truths

Tuesday November 7 2017

By JOHN WALUBENGO
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It is interesting that Kenya's opposition politicians have managed to drag an ICT company into the murky waters of politics. 

Safaricom now joins Facebook and Google in the spotlight after a divisive presidential election.

Facebook and Google were, and are, still under investigation by American authorities after Russian hackers were alleged to have used their platforms to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

Their algorithms were allegedly tweaked to give favourable output for one candidate over the other. Facebook's ‘News Feed’ was allegedly hacked and used to spread fake news about Hillary Clinton, while the Google search engine was allegedly tweaked to give Donald Trump negative reviews.

In other words, when one did a Google search on both Trump and Clinton, the feedback list for Trump would have more negative coverage relative to that of Clinton.

Of course, whether these allegations were true or false remains a matter of ongoing investigation by US authorities.

Let's move across the Atlantic and into Africa.  The Kenyan presidential election, and its leading telecommunication provider, Safaricom, are caught in similar, yet slightly different, circumstances.

The main difference is that there is no formal investigation going on even though there are serious allegations from the opposition against Safaricom. 

The company is alleged to have aided in electoral malpractice, and the opposition has gone as far as naming Safaricom employees who may have executed the actions alleged. Opposition supporters are now being asked to boycott Safaricom services on these allegations. 

To be fair to Safaricom, none of these allegations have been investigated, proven or substantiated, but that is beside the point.  

TRIGGER MANUAL RELAYING

Considering that the call for a boycott is political, it's likely that a good chunk of Nasa's followers will heed the call – irrespective of whether or not the allegations have been substantiated.

This is because Kenyan politics is largely driven by a tribal, cult-like movement ,as opposed to the rational movements one may encounter in more mature democracies.

My predication is therefore that Safaricom is facing one of its biggest ‘competitive’ threats since inception, though from very unlikely quarters.

But was Safaricom in a position to influence the presidential elections of August 8, 2017? Yes and no.

First we must remember that Safaricom was only one of three service providers during the August presidential election, the other two being Airtel and Telkom Kenya.

Any of these three providers was in a position to influence the outcome by ensuring the election transmission kits failed to transmit results from the polling station – in order to force the presiding officer to adopt the ‘manual’ relaying of results. Whereas manual relaying of results is perfectly legal, it lacks the enhanced checks and balances afforded by electronic transmissions. 

Essentially, all three telecom providers were in a position to deliberately trigger manual relaying of results, with its attendant weaknesses.

FAILED TO TRANSMIT

It is, however, unlikely that the 11,000 kits IEBC identified as having failed to electronically transmit results from their polling stations were all in the Safaricom zone.

Additionally, it is unlikely that any of the telecom providers may have altered the results in transit, since configurations for results transmission were highly encrypted.

Nevertheless, the companies may have ignored an opportunity to assist the Supreme Court during the presidential petition, after IEBC declined to provide access to sensitive logs as requested by the opposition.

As an example, the question of whether the transmitted results did indeed originate from a specific polling station or not could have been squarely answered by either IEBC or the telecommunications providers. 

By design, each transmitted results message would go to the nearest transmission mast, thus leaving a digital footprint that includes the geographical location of the transmitting device.

Following the inability of IEBC -the telecoms providers' client - to fulfill some of the court orders to access logs, the telecommunications providers were in a position to provide answers to some of the questions sought through these logs.

Whereas this may be contrary to client-partner contractual and commercial interests, one may argue that the national and public interest may in some instances supersede private contractual obligations.

Safaricom and other telecom operators are unlikely to be guilty of sins of commission, as alleged by the opposition. 

However, they were and they still hold critical data related to the last presidential petition that could be useful in clarifying some of the issues surrounding the irregularities cited by the Supreme Court.

Perhaps we may just need to ask Okiya Omtatah to go to court under the ‘Access to Information Act’ and force these companies to share this data in public interest. That way, we also avoid the unpredictable end-game this boycott is building up to.

Mr Walubengo is a lecturer at Multimedia University of Kenya, Faculty of Computing and IT. Email: [email protected], Twitter: @Jwalu