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Monday, August 15, 2022

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Private businesses are going to use personal information provided by citizens, to access government services

The commission’s decision stemmed from a complaint by GovChat that Meta had threatened to prevent GovChat from using the WhatsApp platform.

The commission’s decision stemmed from a complaint by GovChat that Meta had threatened to prevent GovChat from using the WhatsApp platform.

Published Apr 20, 2022



CAPE TOWN - The subsequent referral of the matter to the Competition Tribunal for prosecution on the basis that Meta (formerly known as Facebook Inc) is abusing its market dominance in South Africa, is also strange.

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The commission’s decision stemmed from a complaint by GovChat that Meta had threatened to prevent GovChat from using the WhatsApp platform. GovChat claims Meta did so to push out a competitor, while Meta has responded, saying GovChat is “(prioritising) its commercial interests over the public”.

Even if we can’t know how effective such claims regarding prioritising of own commercial interests over the public are, they will spread so long as any private business suspects that its competitors might gain an advantage from them.

This saga highlights a bigger issue concerning how the erosion of privacy can lead to an erosion of democracy – and will inevitably do so without firm, clear, principled action by the competition authority, government, and courts.

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Indeed, as Open Secrets’ Abby May and Michael Marchant pointed out in their contribution to the current debate, the fight fuelling such claims also raises questions of fundamental public importance because the ‘market’ in question that GovChat and Meta are fighting over in this dispute is ‘us and our data’.

It is public knowledge that the potential profits from collecting, storing, and managing the data it receives from citizens drive GovChat’s incentive to take on Meta/WhatsApp. As reflected in the GovChat complaint papers to the Competition Commission, through its various relationships with government departments, the company collects and stores millions of South Africans’ information, including location and personal identity information, demographic information, and individuals’ financial profiles.

There is strong evidence that there are blurred lines between GovChat and the government. In addition to being the primary application system for the Social Relief of Distress Grant, Sassa (South African Social Security Agency) chose GovChat to trial an online booking system for disability grants in 2021 and is also the preferred – and possibly only – candidate for Sassa to partner with to facilitate its transition to a digital grants processing model.

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The consequences of such blurred lines have caused untold suffering to the citizens previously, as was the case in 2014 when the Constitutional Court declared Sassa’s contract with CPS (Cash Paymaster Services) and Net1 unlawful. This past abuse of the grant system is an indication of the risks and the identity of victims of a data war – the South African public and their personal information.

Human rights activists are correct in pointing out that it is crucial for transparency in how companies like GovChat collect, store, manage and monetise the data they process. The Protection of Personal Information Act and other legislation place ownership and control of personal information and how it may be used solely in the control of the individuals, and not private businesses.

The Department of Social Development and Sassa must be vigilant and ensure that any private partner they work with abides by these controls, and must be fully transparent about the terms of their partnerships with the private sector to digitise social grants. The Information Regulator and other regulatory bodies must also remain vigilant and act swiftly to stop any company from exploiting access to grant recipients’ information.

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Willie Sutton, the US bank robber, said he robbed banks “because that’s where the money is”, and private businesses are going to use personal information provided by citizens to access government services because that’s where the clients are.

Unlike other casual information-sharing transactions, where you complete forms to communicate to the converted, platforms used by private businesses such as GovChat, CPS, Net1, and others are well adapted to changing people’s minds: that is the basis of their stupendous valuation as advertising channels for their partner companies.

We have seen this with the phenomenon of “fake news”, but that is more or less public. Micro-targeted advertisement campaigns are by their nature private or narrow-cast. They never reach outside their target audience. Thus, they can contain falsehoods or insinuations that are never challenged because they are never brought to light.

Our model of market fairness is based on public advertising followed by private buying of goods and services. This applies in the same way as our model of democracy is based on public campaigning followed by private voting.

These developments that are blurring lines between GovChat and the government through a facilitated use of data of citizens threaten to turn this upside down. When that happens, the buying intentions of private goods and services are publicly known but the arguments that influence them are made in secret, concealed from the wider world where they might be contested.

This is already happening with personal loans, airtime, data, or funeral and other insurance policies that are aggressively and deceptively sold to social grant recipients, and extracted through unauthorised debit orders. So serious is the situation that it prompted the Black Sash and other community organisations to launch the “Hands Off Our Grants” campaign in 2012.

The bigger concern is that there are two aspects of our constitutional right to privacy under threat in the emerging economy, where everyone is almost always connected to the internet and has their lives enmeshed in big data.

The first privacy is the kind that we intuitively understand even if it is difficult to define objectively because, like modesty and shame, it is dependent on culture and context. Some South Africans are happy with encountering nudity in cultural ceremony spaces but would be horrified to have their income discussed; most upper-middle-class South Africans react the other way round.

But in both cases, they keep private what might make them socially vulnerable if it were publicly known. At one extreme there is the possibility of blackmail; at the other, perhaps, merely embarrassment, but even that can be an excruciating emotion, especially for the already vulnerable social grant recipients. We know too well that, instead of breaking the silence and seeking help, many people have forfeited voting during elections because their IDs have been illegally confiscated by loans sharks.

Technology has made it much easier to violate that kind of privacy. Some things are now known to advertisers almost before you know them yourself. The classic case is the woman whose online activity shows that she’s trying to apply for a social grant. If she succeeds, it will be almost impossible to conceal her grant recipient status from the market. The advertisers will know long before she chooses to tell her friends.

There is a second, more frightening loss of privacy as well. The unprecedented knowledge that the giants of the surveillance economy have acquired about us may disclose vulnerabilities of which we are unaware.

The ability to exploit the vulnerabilities that this data reveals should be controlled as tightly as we try to control our security in other areas of our lives. Democracy demands no less. And the competition authority, government, and courts must come to the rescue of citizens by affirming our vigilance to vindicate our privacy and dignity rights.

Nyembezi is a human rights activist and policy analyst.

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