Mthuli Ncube & His “Sophisticated Algorithms” For Corona Relief Funds – Another Privacy Disaster Looming?

Farai Mudzingwa Avatar

When the government announced it would be distributing $600 million in COVID-19 Relief funds to assist vulnerable families there was some relief as it seemed the government

When the fund was announced it was claimed that the Ministry of Social Welfare would prepare the database for recipients who would qualify for funding but cracks started showing when it became apparent that government initially planned on distributing these funds through a single mobile money service provider – OneMoney.

The outcry that ensued led to revelations that the Ministry of SMEs was not doing the best of jobs compiling the list of beneficiaries. The Director of the Vendors Initiative for Social and Economic Transformation complained that the government was lumping together SMEs and citizens;

This was a hurried process and there was no clarity in terms of the requirements by the ministry. They bunched the social welfare element together with the informal sector facility.

There is no clarity on who is doing the selection process and the vetting.

We have been requested to update our databases, which we have done. We have submitted them, but we don’t know who is going to decide who gets money and who doesn’t.

Samuel Wadzanai, director of the Vendors Initiative for Social and Economic Transformation

Whilst the government budged and decided to include EcoCash in the distribution process it still simply isn’t apparent how they’ve determined who gets support.

The Deputy Minister of Social Welfare disclosed that 800 000 beneficiaries who will get support “were identified through the Econet platform” whilst only 200 000 were identified by the Ministry of Social Welfare.

The ministry received a list from the Ministry of Women Affairs, local authorities and informal traders associations. A further 800 000 were identified through the Econet platform. Payment will commence once Treasury authority is granted

Lovemore Matuke – Deputy Minister of Social Welfare

The Finance Minister earlier this week claimed that the government was using a “sophisticated algorithm” to determine who would be eligible to receive funding. The algorithm looks at how much money is in a potential recipient’s bank account, mobile wallet and then uses the phone number to determine where a potential recipient stays.

Whilst this raises a lot of questions about how many people will be excluded due to the fact that they simply don’t have a mobile phone another question – that of user privacy.

It isn’t really clear what law allows Econet to identify these beneficiaries but most of the government’s choices during this tough period go against the established law as outlined by Veritas;

  • The lock-down, for example, restricts freedom of movement guaranteed by section 66 of the Constitution;
  • the ban on gatherings limits freedom of assembly guaranteed by section 58;
  • compulsory testing of people infringes their right to privacy.

It’s likely that the government has prioritised the well-being of citizens over privacy rights including in the distribution of these funds and I don’t necessary blame the government.

What makes me uneasy however is the fact that the government has not given full explanation regarding how the algorithm works.

The inconsistencies don’t end there. A week ago, EcoCash was not going to be part of this process at all because their sister company’s mobile money service EcoCash was deemed too expensive by the government but that same company is now the one identifying beneficiaries? Make it make sense.

The aftermath

Whilst many will argue that the current crisis might be enough of a reason for people to relax their approach to handling user data but what will happen to the databases established after funds have been distributed?

Given that we’ve seen this kind of data get abused by ZANU PF during their campaigns for the 2018 election. We also believe banks have used the data from ZECs leaked voters’ roll to identify customers so it won’t be surprising if data from this database is used illegally long after the COVID-19 crisis has been contained.

I think the biggest problem when it comes to such issues though is simply the fact that no one can hold the government accountable and once they’ve decided on a course of action – whether it is legal or not is of secondary concern.

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