Opinion | What Companies and Government Bodies Aren’t Telling You About AI Profiling

By Tara Davis & Murray Hunter |

Artificial intelligence has moved from the realm of science fiction into our pockets. And while we are nowhere close to engaging with AI as sophisticated as the character Data from Star Trek, the forms of artificial narrow intelligence that we do have inform hundreds of everyday decisions, often as subtle as what products you see when you open a shopping app or the order that content appears on your social media feed.

Examples abound of the real and potential benefits of AI, like health tech that remotely analyses patients’ vital signs to alert medical staff in the event of an emergency, or initiatives to identify vulnerable people eligible for direct cash transfers.

But the promises and the success stories are all we see. And though there is a growing global awareness that AI can also be used in ways that are biased, discriminatory, and unaccountable, we know very little about how AI is used to make decisions about us. The use of AI to profile people based on their personal information – essentially, for businesses or government agencies to subtly analyse us to predict our potential as consumers, citizens, or credit risks – is a central feature of surveillance capitalism, and yet mostly shrouded in secrecy.

As part of a new research series on AI and human rights, we approached 14 leading companies in South Africa’s financial services, retail and e-commerce sectors, to ask for details of how they used AI to profile their customers. (In this case, the customer was us: we specifically approached companies where at least one member of the research team was a customer or client.) We also approached two government bodies, Home Affairs and the Department of Health, with the same query.

Why AI transparency matters for privacy
The research was prompted by what we don’t see. The lack of transparency makes it difficult to exercise the rights provided for in terms of South Africa’s data protection law – the Protection of Personal Information Act 4 of 2013. The law provides a right not to be subject to a decision which is based solely on the automated processing of your information intended to profile you.

The exact wording of the elucidating section is a bit of a mouthful and couched in caveats. But the overall purpose of the right is an important one. It ensures that consequential decisions – such as whether someone qualifies for a loan – cannot be made solely without human intervention.

But there are limits to this protection. Beyond the right’s conditional application, one limitation is that the law doesn’t require you to be notified when AI is used in this way. This makes it impossible to know whether such a decision was made, and therefore whether the right was undermined.

What we found
Our research used the access to information mechanisms provided for in POPIA and its cousin, the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA), to try to understand how these South African companies and public agencies were processing our information, and how they used AI for data profiling if at all. In policy jargon, this sort of query is called a “data subject request”.

The results shed little light on how companies actually use AI. The responses – where they responded – were often maddeningly vague, or even a bit confused. Rather, the exercise showed just how much work needs to be done to enact meaningful transparency and accountability in the space of AI and data profiling.

Notably, nearly a third of the companies we approached did not respond at all, and only half provided any substantive response to our queries about their use of AI for data profiling. This reveals an ongoing challenge in basic implementation of the law. Among those companies that are widely understood to use AI for data profiling – notably, those in financial services – the responses generally did confirm that they used automated processing, but were otherwise so vague that they did not tell us anything meaningful about how AI had been used on our information.

Yet, many other responses we received suggested a worrying lack of engagement with basic legal and technical questions relating to AI and data protection. One major bank directed our query to the fraud department. At another bank, our request was briefly directed to someone in their internal HR department. (Who was, it should be said, as surprised by this as we were.) In other words, the humans answering our questions did not always seem to have a good grip on what the law says and how it relates to what their organisations were doing.

Perhaps all this should not be so shocking. In 2021, when an industry inquiry found evidence of racial bias in South African medical aid reimbursements to doctors, lack of AI transparency was actually given its own little section.

Led by Advocate Thembeka Ngcukaitobi, the inquiry’s interim findings concluded that a lack of algorithmic transparency made it impossible to say if AI played any role in the racial bias that it found. Two of the three schemes under investigation couldn’t actually explain how their own algorithms worked, as they simply rented software from an international provider.

The AI sat in a “black box” that even the insurers couldn’t open. The inquiry’s interim report noted: “In our view it is undesirable for South African companies or schemes to be making use of systems and their algorithms without knowing what informs such systems.”

What’s to be done
In sum, our research shows that it remains frustratingly difficult for people to meaningfully exercise their rights concerning the use of AI for data profiling. We need to bolster our existing legal and policy tools to ensure that the rights guaranteed in law are carried out in reality – under the watchful eye of our data protection watchdog, the Information Regulator, and other regulatory bodies.

The companies and agencies who actually use AI need to design systems and processes (and internal staffing) that makes it possible to lift the lid on the black box of algorithmic decision-making.

Yet, these processes are unlikely to fall into place by chance. To get there, we need a serious conversation about new policies and tools which will ensure transparent and accountable use of artificial intelligence. (Importantly, our other research shows that African countries are generally far behind in developing AI-related policy and regulation.)

Unfortunately, in the interim, it falls to ordinary people, whose rights are at stake in a time of mass data profiteering, to guard against the unchecked processing of our personal information – whether by humans, robots, or – as is usually the case – a combination of the two. As our research shows, this is inordinately difficult for ordinary people to do.

ALT Adivosry is an Africa Digital Rights Fund (ADRF) grantee.

Two Years of CIPESA’s Fellowship Programme

Fellows |
In 2017, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) introduced its fellowship programme. The media fellowship aims to raise media understanding of, and its effective and consistent reporting of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) -for-democracy issues in East Africa towards increased quality and regularity of reporting, as well as a greater diversity of voices, in coverage related to ICT, democracy and human rights.
The academia fellowship aims to nurture university students’ and early career academics’ understanding of ICT for governance, human rights and development. By engaging members of the academic community, the programme benefits partners of the ICT4Democracy in East Africa network through placements of individuals with skills in fields such as ICT, mass communication, and informatics, within the partner organisations. Ultimately, the programme aims to grow links between the academic community and practitioners in the ICT field for mutual research, learning and knowledge exchange, so as to create the next generation of ICT for democracy and ICT for human rights champions and researchers.
Since its launch, six fellows representing east and western Africa, as well as Asia have participated in the programme, with a wide range of outputs including commentaries, broadcast content, multimedia content and journal articles. The learning and experiences of the fellows so far have informed CIPESA’s contributions to the to the curriculum review and development for a Masters in eGovernance programme at Makerere University. Furthermore, CIPESA’s engagements with the Makerere University Development Informatics Research Group on the role academics should play to contribute to the national and global development agenda, including through producing actionable knowledge, creating closer linkages with development practitioners and seeking ways to influence policy making.

Media Fellow Emmanuel Kajubu assessed the performance of elected leaders in Western Uganda, a year after they were voted into office. Many of them had committed to improve service delivery in education and health if they were elected.

Kajubu focussed on the districts of Kabarole, Kasese, Kyenjojo, Kyegegwa, Ntoroko and Kamwenge, which form the Rwenzori region, and worked in collaboration with ICT4Democracy in East Africa partner Toro Development Network (ToroDev).
In interviews with the electorate, some members of the community said that after being elected, the leaders had not returned to consult them on issues affecting the community or fulfilled pledges made during campaigns. In response, many of the elected officials argued that they were constrained to carry out monitoring and supervision of government projects due to lack of funds.
His stories were published on the Uganda Radio Network website, an online news agency, and on the Toro Development Network website.

He also developed an eight-minute radio feature which summarised the views of the electorate and local leaders. It was broadcast on Hits FM Radio in Fort Portal on October 22, 2017. The radio station works with ToroDev and serves as a platform for the community in Western Uganda to air out issues affecting them and also for leaders to be accountable to the community.

Media Fellow Lilian Kaivilu is a multimedia journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya, with a keen focus on Innovations, Gender, Health, Business and Development stories.
Lilian works as a writing consultant with the World Bank Group and is also the founder of Impacthub Media, an online media platform that focuses on Development, Health and Innovation stories from Kenyan communities.
She has previously worked as a reporter for the Global Press Journal, Kenya News Desk. She has also worked as a Features reporter at Mediamax Network Limited (People Daily Newspaper), and as a sub editor at Shrend Publishers and Supplies Limited.
Lilian is a Bloomberg Media Initiative fellow (Strathmore Business School), Safaricom Business Journalism fellow (Strathmore Business School), Kenya Institute of Mass
Communication Journalism Graduate and a Linguistics, Media and Communication graduate from Moi University. In addition, she is currently taking Digital Capacity Building training by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA). She is also pursuing the WAN-IFRA’s Media Management course.
For her fellowship tenure, in the run up to Kenya’s 2016 elections, Lillian covered stories on ICT for rural access to information, how ICT is transforming Nairobi’s Kibera slum, challenges to political participation by rural populations and local innovations in maternal health care.

Marvin Bwire, another fellow from Nairobi, Kenya worked to profile and raising awareness about female genital mutilation in Meru and empowering women in politics in Kenya through video.  He worked with the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), a member of the ICT4Democracy in East Africa Network.
Marvin is a film production graduate from the Multimedia University of Kenya and a practicing journalist. His work is built upon the pillar of the right to information for all and the use of ICT as an avenue to provide information to the public.

Wanjiru Mburu is an ICT4D researcher who is passionate about using ICT to bridge the healthcare digital divide in developing countries.
She holds a bachelors degree and masters degree both in Computer Science, and is currently a Ph.D. student at the ICT4D center, University of Cape Town. Her research interests are mainly in human-computer interaction for development (HCI4D) and mobile health fields.
For her fellowship, Wanjiru worked with the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) and African Population and Health Research Centre (APHRC), to research how ICT platforms can be used to educate mothers of preterm infants on their health rights in Kenya. A journal article from this fellowship was accepted in the 6th International Conference on Mobile Communication Technology for Development (M4D2018) conference proceedings which was held in Kampala, Uganda in December 2018.
Sotheavin Doch holds a bachelor degree in Environmental Science and a masters degree in Disaster Risk and Resilience. She was a Research Assistant for the BBC Media Action in Cambodia and is a Research and Partnership Officer with Open Development Cambodia (ODC). She supports ODC’s team to promote and teach use of ODC’s site as an open data platform. She organises training for citizens citizen journalists local authorities and others stakeholders to access information of public services’ services/fee digitized on ODC’s website and also conducts training on ‘data-driven journalism’ to journalist students in Cambodia to generate and analyse data into their news reports to develop a new way of telling stories with data or evidence.
Sotheavin joined CIPESA as part of the South South Media Lab (SSMLab) in-residence program which aims at increasing networking and collaboration within the media sector between South-East Asia and East Africa. The residencies took place during November and December 2018.
As part of the fellowship, Sotheavin worked on the use of open data and open source technology to promote public service delivery. She also conducted a training for journalists on data-driven reporting methods, through engagements and needs assessments with ICT4Democarcy Network partners CIPESA, Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) and Transparency International (TI) Uganda.
Tomiwa Ilori was hosted as a fellow by CIPESA as part of his Masters study in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa at the University of Pretoria. He undertook research related to his study in the area of constitutional law.
He contributed to CIPESA’s policy analysis work by researching and producing commentaries on How Nigeria and Uganda are Faring on the Right to Information and consumer protection.
Tomiwa has experience working on digital rights in Nigeria and was also in charge of ongoing strategic litigation suits with respect to digital rights infringement in Nigeria by Paradigm Initiative. He is the coordinator of the NetRights Africa Coalition.

Advancing Internet Policy Research in Africa

By Juliet Nanfuka |
The conversation and actions on internet related policy in Africa have grown in recent years as has the appreciation of its impact on internet users. However, research to support advocacy for improved internet policy development on the continent remains relatively low despite a growing internet penetration and its resultant impact on the continent’s social, economic and political scenes. This has led to the need to train, connect, and build collaboration between researchers, policy makers and internet freedom advocates across the region.
Accordingly, between February 26 and March 3, 2018, an intensive African regional training on Internet policy research methods will be held in Kampala, Uganda. Hosted by the Annenberg School for Communication’s Internet Policy Observatory and the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East (CIPESA), along with several partners from across Africa, the six-day program is aimed at building collaborative possibilities across sectors, expanding research capacity within the practitioner and digital rights advocacy communities, as well as providing the skills to strategically use research and data to advance advocacy efforts. Ultimately, it aims to improve working synergies between emerging African networks of civil society organisations, academic centres, technologists and think tanks.

The workshop is designed as an intensive practicum, covering both quantitative and qualitative methods as well as offering case studies which illustrate how to strategically use research for advocacy and policymaking. It will also entail theoretical and practical sessions on a range of topics including legal analysis, survey methods, social network analysis, strategic communication, data visualisation, and network measurement.
Past workshops in the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America were successful in equipping a diverse group of participants with the skills needed to understand how to frame research questions, understand various qualitative and quantitative research methods, and collaborate across disciplinary and professional silos.
Following a public call for applications which was launched at the Forum on Internet Freedom Africa 2017, over 400 applications were received from across Africa. A total of 40 applicants – representing 17 countries – with diverse skills and professions including journalists, lawyers, researchers, technologists, academics and government representatives were successful. The represented countries include Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gambia, Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Namibia, Nigeria, Tanzania, Rwanda, South Africa, South Sudan, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
Among the participants is South Africa based Yolanda Mlonzi, co-founder of the Southern African Emerging Leaders in Internet Governance (SAELIG), who notes that, “We find ourselves in an exciting yet critical time, where we have the opportunity to set our own standards and shape internet policy for the better. The workshop presents a great opportunity for learning, to stretch my current positions on internet policy in Africa and most importantly, to start thinking of ways to contribute to quality research that seeks to advance the notion of understanding internet policy through the human and digital rights framework.”
Gambian Demba Kandeh, a journalism and digital media lecturer at the University of The Gambia, echoed Mlonzi’s sentiments on research-driven policy development, noting: “Making impact with research is key but often difficult … there is an opportunity for relevant stakeholders across the continent to seize the opportunity to advance well-researched policy options for the region.” Meanwhile, Namibian researcher and journalist, Frederico Links, pointed out the current gaps affecting strong policy formulation stating that, ”the African internet-related policy space is woefully underdeveloped and weak, and reflects both a severely limited state sector understanding of internet and technology related matters, as well as significant cross-sectoral capacity constraints.”
The workshop will include faculty from the Annenberg School for Communication –  University of Pennsylvania, Alliance for Affordable Internet – World Wide Web Foundation, CIPESA, DefendDefenders, Department of Media Studies at University of Virginia, Human Rights Network for Journalists (Uganda), Internet Policy Observatory, Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet), Lynchburg College (USA), Makerere University College of Computing and Information Sciences (Uganda), Medic Mobile, Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI), Open Observatory of Network Interference, Open Technology Fund, Paradigm Initiative, Pollicy, Research ICT Africa, Social Media Exchange (SMEX), Small Media and Unwanted Witness.
Follow the #InternetPolicyAfrica hashtag for updates on the workshop. Remember to follow the organiser Twitter accounts too – @InternetPolicyO and @cipesaug
You can also share your vision for the future of internet use in Africa using the #InternetFreedomAfrica hashtag

Research Methods Workshop for Internet Policy And Advocacy in Africa

Call for Applications  |
The Annenberg School for Communication’s Internet Policy Observatory, the Collaboration on
International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), Research ICT Africa, Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet), Unwanted Witness, Paradigm Initiative, and
Young ICT Advocates seek applications from young scholars, activists, lawyers, and technologists working across Africa for an intensive practicum on using research for digital rights advocacy.
The workshop seeks to provide a venue for stakeholders in the region to build collaborative possibilities across sectors, expand research capacity within practitioner and digital rights advocacy communities, and to provide the skills and know-how to more strategically use research and data to advance advocacy efforts. Sessions will cover both qualitative and quantitative methods and will provide the space for hands-on activities and the development of individual and group research interests. In this way, the workshop seeks to provide opportunities to connect scholarly expertise with policymakers and advocates and improve working synergies between emerging African networks of civil society organizations, academic centers and think-tanks.
Sessions will include workshops on stakeholder analysis, conducting interviews, researching laws and regulations, social network analysis, network measurement, survey methods, data visualization, and strategic communication for policy impact.
We encourage individuals from Africa in the academic (early career), NGO, technology, and public policy sectors to apply. Prospective applicants should have a particular area of interest related to internet governance and policymaking, censorship, surveillance, internet access, political engagement online, protection of human rights online, and/or corporate governance in the ICT sector. Applicants will be asked to bring a specific research question to the program to be developed and operationalized through trainings, group projects, and one-on-one mentorship with top researchers and experts from around the world. Several partial and full scholarships will be made for the most competitive applicants to participate.
The course will be conducted in English and applicants should have high proficiency in English in order to interact with experts, lecturers and other participants who will come from diverse backgrounds. Please also note that we require all participants to have a laptop to use for the duration of the program.
Application Deadline: November 10, 2017
Workshop Dates: Feb 26 – Mar 3, 2018 | Location: Kampala, Uganda
To apply for the program, please fill this form.
For questions, please email Laura at [email protected].

In Search of Local Knowledge on ICTS in Africa

By reviewing and comparing literature on the role of ICTs in statebuilding and peacebuilding in Africa, with a particular focus on neighboring Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia, this paper examines whether the claims of the transformative power of ICTs are backed by evidence and whether local knowledge – e.g., traditional mechanisms for conflict resolution – is taken into consideration by ICT-based initiatives. Several key findings emerged, including: 1) empirical evidence on the successful use of ICTs to promote peacebuilding and statebuilding is thin; 2) few differences exist between scholarship emanating from the Global North and from Africa; and 3) the literature exhibits a simplistic assumption that ICTs will drive democratic development without sufficient consideration of how ICTs are actually used by the public.
Download the full paper here.