Exploring data anonymisation and VPN adaptation in East Africa

Over the last decade, East Africa has experienced a massive increase in the number of Internet users in the region, mainly due to the rapid penetration of mobile broadband connectivity. The growth in Internet adoption has led to a positive economic and social transformation in the region. However, challenges exist to the use of the Internet, with cybercrime, censorship and geo-blocks being the biggest hurdles to East African users achieving the maximum benefits of Internet connectivity. Internet users in the region have hence turned to data anonymisation tools and techniques to overcome these barriers. 

This blog is based on research conducted in Kenya and Uganda, “Exploring data anonymisation in Eastern Africa”, which is funded by the Media Democracy Fund. The research aimed to explore the motivations behind Internet users’ adoption of data anonymisation tools, with a key focus on the use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and Domain Name System (DNS) manipulation tools. In addition, it sought to identify the various cyber-threats that East African Internet users face and the role of data anonymisation in addressing these threats.

Primary data was collected through focus group discussions and interviews across the two countries. Participants in the focus groups included users with low, medium, and high technical Internet abilities. A total of twenty-eight female and thirty-seven male participants aged between 15 and 64 years old were part of eight focus groups across Kenya and Uganda. A total of 65 participants took part in the focus groups. Focus group discussions were complemented with secondary data on time-based relative searches on keywords relating to data anonymisation tools, from Google Trends API and data collected by AccessNow on Internet disruptions in Africa.

Awareness of the use of data anonymisation tools by Internet users in East Africa was a constant theme that emerged from the research. It was also evident that social engineering is the first line of attack used by malicious hackers in the region, due to the low levels of awareness among Internet users. Cases of phishing scams, online impersonation and social media account hackings were reported by the participants.

It happened to me on Facebook when I was on campus, somebody hacked into my account and asked my friends for money” (male, high technical, Uganda).

While only one participant reported having had his bank account as a target, mobile money came up as the main target of digital financial fraud. Although the majority of Internet users in East Africa were aware of online security dangers, the awareness on ensuring online safety was however limited to the medium to highly technical Internet users in the region. On the other hand, East African Internet users felt that social media platforms gave them enough freedom to express themselves without compromising their privacy and confidentiality of communication up to the point that over half of the participants reported that they interact more freely on social media platforms than in person. The use of data anonymisation tools did not emerge as a common practise for online security compared to the use of these tools to evade censorship, with only one Internet user reporting having taken extra steps and tools to ensure online security.

It was also clear that Internet disruptions are on the rise in East African countries, over the last six years, becoming one of the main challenges to reliable Internet availability in the region. Half of the countries in the region have experienced more than one Internet disruptions over the last six years, with the majority of the disruptions occurring during the election times. Internet disruptions to, control mass protests is also common in the region. The most common disruptions are full Internet shutdowns and social media and news site blackouts and throttling. Over three-quarters of focus group participants felt that Internet disruptions in the region are an infringement on the right to expression of the people, and are a form of censorship.

“Once you shut down the Internet in Uganda, not only do you prevent Ugandans from knowing what is going on in Uganda and the world, but also, you have prevented the whole world from knowing what is going on in Uganda” (male, medium technical, Uganda).

It was evident that Internet disruptions in the region have led to an increase in the quest for and use of data anonymization tools, with Google Trends data indicating an increase in relative searches for keywords such as ‘VPN’ during or immediately after an Internet disruption period in a country. It was also evident that the existence of Internet disruptions in a country increases the Internet users’ knowledge of data anonymisation tools, especially among the low technical users. In Kenya, where there has never been an Internet disruption, five out of the seven low technical participants reported that they have no idea what a VPN was, while in Uganda, all focus groups participants had at least an idea of what a VPN was.

The introduction of the Over the Top (OTT) tax in Uganda was reported to have heavily affected the affordability of accessing the Internet in the country. Although a majority of Internet users had initially turned to the use of VPN tools to evade paying the tax, some reverted to paying the tax, as they reported that the use of VPN tools led to faster mobile data bundles depletion, since the encryption added by these tools ends up using more bandwidth for data transmission. Internet users in Uganda also reported that using VPN tools to evade the OTT tax led to a faster smartphone battery discharging, which is a challenge, as some did not have electricity at their homes and had to pay to have their smartphone charged mainly in cyber cafes in the nearby shopping centres.

Although many geo-blocked platforms exist in East Africa, especially entertainment content, geo-blocking was only a concern among the age groups below 45 years and among high technical Internet users in the region. The existence of geo-blocked platforms in East Africa is unknown by the majority of focus group participants in Kenya and Uganda, with most of them relying on YouTube, other third-party free music download sites and social media platforms for entertainment. 

Why pay for music (Spotify) while I can download any song from the Internet or YouTube?” (female, medium technical, Kenya).

It was also evident that although participants reported that the use of VPN tools led to more bandwidth usage and slower connections, only a few participants were aware that DNS manipulation tools like Smart DNS could be used to access geo-blocked content.

In summary, what emerged from our research is that data anonymisation in East Africa is not practised to improve online security and to increase privacy protection. Rather, VPNs have been used to circumvent Internet shut-downs and Internet disruptions in the region, and to avoid social media taxes, as the need to be connected with family and friends or to conduct business, prevailed against government forms of Information control. Rather than undermining access to the Internet through disruptions or social media users’ taxation, digital policies should instead be deployed to enable East African Internet users to fully exploit the positive socio-economic advantages accompanying the adoption of the Internet.

* This research by Duncan Kinuthia was conducted while he was a Ford Foundation (Media Democracy Fund) Tech Exchange Fellow.