A GPS Tracker on Every “Boda Boda”: A Tale of Mass Surveillance in Uganda

The Ugandan government recently announced that GPS trackers would be placed on every vehicle in the country. This is just the latest example of the proliferation of technology-driven mass surveillance, spurred by a national security agenda and the desire to suppress political opposition.

Following the June 2021 assassination attempt on Uganda’s Transport Minister and former army commander, General Katumba Wamala, President Yoweri Museveni suggested mandatory Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking of all private and public vehicles. This includes motorcycle taxis (commonly known as boda bodas) and water vessels. Museveni also suggested collecting and storing the palm prints and DNA of every Ugandan.

Hardly a month later, reports emerged that the government, through the Ministry of Security, had entered into a 10-year secretive contract with a Russian security firm to undertake the installation of GPS trackers in vehicles. Selection of the firm was never subjected to the procurement procedures required by Ugandan law, and a few days after this news broke, it emerged that the Russian firm was facing bankruptcy litigation. The line minister who endorsed the contract subsequently distanced himself from the deal, saying that he was merely enforcing a presidential directive. The government has confirmed that Ugandans will have to pay 20,000 UGX (approximately $6 USD) annually to the Russian firm for the installation of trackers on their vehicles. This controversial move means Ugandans are paying for their own surveillance.
According to 2020 statistics by the Ugandan Bureau of Statistics, a total of 38,182 motor vehicles and 102,273 motor cycles are registered in Uganda. Most of these motorcycles function as boda bodas and are a de facto mode of public transport in Uganda commonly used by people of all social classes. In the capital of Kampala, boda bodas are essential because of their ability to navigate heavy traffic jams. In remote locations where public transport is inaccessible, boda bodas are the only means of transportation for most people, except the elites. While a boda boda motorcycle was allegedly used in the assassination attempt on General Katumba Wamala, those same boda bodas also function as ambulances (including bringing the General to a hospital after the attack) and many other essential purposes.

It should be emphasized that this latest attempt at boda boda mass surveillance is part of a broader effort by the government of Uganda to exert power and control via digital surveillance and thereby limit the full enjoyment of human rights offline and online. One example is the widespread use of indiscriminate drone surveillance. Another is the Cyber Crimes Unit in the Ugandan police which, since 2014, has had overly broad powers to monitor the social media activity of Ugandans. Unwanted Witness has raised concerns about the intrusive powers of this unit, which violate Article 27 of the 1995 Uganda Constitution that guarantees the right to privacy.

And that is not all. In 2018, the Ugandan government contracted the Chinese firm Huawei to install CCTV cameras in all major cities and on all highways, spending over $126 million USD on these cameras and related facial recognition technology. In the absence of any judicial oversight, there are also concerns about backdoor access to this system for illegal facial recognition surveillance on potential targets and the use of this system to stifle all opposition to the regime.

The fears about the use of this CCTV system to violate human rights and stifle dissent came true in November 2020. Following the arrest of two opposition presidential candidates, political protests erupted in Uganda, and this CCTV system was used to crack down on dissent after these protests. Long before these protests, the Wall Street Journal had already reported on how Huawei technicians assisted the Ugandan government to spy on political opponents.

This is taking place in a wider context of attacks on human rights defenders and NGOs. Under the guise of seeking to pre-empt terror threats, the state has instituted cumbersome regulations on nonprofits and granted authorities the power to monitor and interfere in their work. Last year, a number of well-known human rights groups were falsely accused of funding terrorism and had their bank accounts frozen. The latest government clampdown on NGOs resulted in the suspension of the operations of 54 organizations on allegations of non-compliance with registration laws. Uganda’s pervasive surveillance apparatus will be instrumental in these efforts at censoring and silencing human rights organizations, activists, and other forms of dissent.
The intrusive application of digital surveillance harms the right to privacy of Ugandans. Privacy is a fundamental right enshrined in the 1995 Constitution and numerous international human rights treaties and other legal instruments. The right to privacy is also a central pillar of a well-functioning democracy. But in the quest to surveil its population, the Ugandan government has either underplayed or ignored the violation of human rights.

What is especially problematic here is the partial privatization of government surveillance to individual corporations. There is a long and unfortunate track record in Uganda of private corporations evading all human rights accountability for their involvement in surveillance. In 2019, for example, Unwanted Witness wrote a report that faulted a transport hailing app—SafeBoda—for sharing customers’ data with third parties without their consent. With the planned GPS tracking, Ugandan boda boda users will have their privacy eroded further, with the help of the Russian security firm. Driven by a national security agenda and the desire to control and suppress any opposition to the long-running Museveni presidency, digital surveillance is proliferating as Ugandans’ rights to privacy, to freedom of expression, and to freedom of assembly are harmed.

October 13, 2021. Dorothy Mukasa is the Chief Executive Officer of Unwanted Witness, a leading digital rights organization in Uganda.