Exploring Data Anonymisation and Internet safety in East Africa

Research ICT Africa Policy Paper

Executive Summary

Internet adoption in East Africa has faced several challenges with the high cost of bandwidth being the key challenge. Nevertheless, once people are online, censorship, Internet privacy, geo-blocking of content and Internet shutdowns are some of the major challenges faced by Internet users in East Africa. The use of virtual private network tools for data anonymisation and Domain Name System (DNS) manipulation techniques are being adopted in the region to circumvent these obstacles to Internet use.

Maintaining anonymity over the web is a growing concern for users not only in East Africa, but also around the world. This has been fuelled by numerous data privacy breaches leading to illegal access or illegal exposure of user data collected by numerous platforms and sometimes shared with third parties. Rising censorship and geo-blocks over the Internet are also driving Internet users into a quest for anonymity online, as a means to overcome the targeted barriers.

The use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) has been on the rise as an effective data security technique, due to the added encryption that VPNs offer to the data during transmission over a less secure network such as the Internet. The use of VPNs for privacy and anonymity, achievable through maintaining the confidentiality of data tunnelled from a user through the VPN provider, is also on the rise to overcome these barriers. From a technical point of view, achieving complete anonymity and communication privacy is relative to the VPN provider ensuring user data privacy. There is also no standard protocol guiding user logging for VPN providers. Bugs in VPN software can also lead to privacy breaches. This makes VPNs more suitable for user privacy than for anonymity as compared to the Tor network. While users have to trust VPN providers for privacy and anonymity, the Tor network ensures complete online anonymity. DNS manipulation is also a popular technique used to hide the origin of one’s traffic over the web. This is the subversion of the resolution of DNS queries, with a key aim to hide a user’s real location.

There is limited data and statistics on the current level of online security and on the use of data anonymisation tools in East Africa, yet such data is necessary to inform regional and global policy debates on privacy, safety, and security online in Africa. There is also a lack of adequate research on the volumes of VPN usage and the reasons why VPNs have been used in Eastern Africa, with most of the statistical reports being done by the VPN service providers. Yet, that research can also shed light on how to make users safe and secure online. The main objectives of this study are, on one hand, to highlight what privacy, safety, and security risks East African Internet users have encountered to access to the Internet; and on the other hand, to explain why Internet users are employing data anonymisation tools in the region, focusing on the use of VPNs and DNS manipulation techniques. Last but not least, this research also provides specific recommendations on how to be safe and secure online through data anonymisation across the region.

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

Suggested citation

Kinuthia, D. (2020). Exploring Data Anonymisation and Internet safety in East Africa (Policy Paper Series: 2020). Research ICT Africa. https://researchictafrica.net/publication/exploring-data-anonymisation-and-internet-safety-in-east-africa/