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Four ways to balance telecom innovation and security in Africa

The telecommunications sector is one of the pillars of the digital transformation in Africa. Its rapid expansion has led to a considerable increase in the number of devices and data-driven services, and therefore in the volume of data carried on the telecom networks. Big data and related analytics have numerous advantages for governments, businesses, and consumers alike. These include improved decision-making, innovation, and enhanced user experience. However, increased data collection and exchange also raises security concerns, as sensitive information may become exposed. How can telecom operators and governments keep on leveraging this data while ensuring its privacy and protection? This blog investigates four ways in which they can balance telecom innovation and security on the continent.

Implementation of security measures

Security is one of the pillars of trust in the digital ecosystem and concerns around potential data security breaches are legitimate. In some cases, they might even outweigh the perceived benefits of data collection and analysis for the population. Protecting the users’ data through robust security measures is therefore essential to balance telecom innovation and security.

The pseudonymization and anonymization methods support the achievement of this balance. Indeed, they make it possible to combine the use of data-driven services with data confidentiality. The GDPR defines anonymization as the process that renders data “anonymous in such a way that the data subject is not or no longer identifiable”. As for pseudonymization, it is the processing of personal data in such a way that the data can no longer be attributed to a specific data subject without the use of additional information”.

GVG has a long track record in collecting and analyzing data to assist governments and regulators in strategic decision-making. Therefore, we are also aware of the fact that privacy and security are of paramount importance in Big Data analytics. GVG applies both pseudonymization and anonymization to the data its platforms collect. We transform the data by removing the identifiers that link it to a specific individual or by adding fake identifiers.

Effective, relevant and harmonized regulation

However, such interventions require the backup of an appropriate regulatory framework as regards the protection of personal data. More and more African countries are implementing such frameworks. Currently, 36 of the 54 countries have implemented relevant legislation, and three are in the process of drafting it. Although this represents a welcome improvement, 15 countries still have no law in place. This means that there is still work outstanding to consolidate this progress, regulatory harmonization being an important next step.

Indeed, each one of the 36 sets of data privacy laws in force was created to meet the needs of its respective country. There is therefore no harmonization between them. To support a harmonized approach to data privacy on the continent, the African Union Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection, or Malabo Convention, went into effect in June 2023. Its purpose is to provide general rules on personal data protection, electronic commerce, and cybersecurity. African countries that have not yet drafted their own data protection regulation can use it as a point of reference.

Shifting the focus back to the individual African countries, it is also worth pointing out the need to balance national security with the telecom users’ right to privacy. Indeed, telecom companies may have to abide by surveillance laws requiring them to divulge user data in specific circumstances. In that case, the regulation needs to allow for a compromise between national security requirements and data protection.

User empowerment

Empowering the users and giving them the resources to contribute to the security of their own data is another effective way to balance telecom innovation and security. Educational and awareness campaigns led by both the operators and the authorities enable users to keep their own data safe. The lack of digital literacy in Africa is indeed causing some users to fall prey to various forms of fraud, such as impersonation and identity theft, among others.

It is also in the users’ interest that the telecom operators be as transparent as possible when it comes to their data collection and analysis processes. Operators can do so by seeking informed consent from their customers before using their personal data, explaining clearly in which way the collected data will be utilized. They can also give them at least some control over the data they have submitted. For instance, this could mean allowing the users to access, modify and even delete their data.

By contributing to enhanced digital security, these practices help build trust in the innovative services the telecom sector offers. Consequently, they enable the users to enjoy the benefits of these services, which include financial and social inclusion.

Accountable and responsible innovation

Telecoms innovation is much less likely to come at the expense of security when it takes the latter into consideration from the start. For example, new products and services can be designed so as to integrate data privacy and security measures. This is referred to as “privacy by design”. According to the GDPR, this concept arose from the understanding that “data protection in data processing procedures is best adhered to when it is already integrated in the technology when created”.

Telecom service providers can also reduce the risk of data breaches and privacy violations by implementing data minimization strategies. This means limiting the data collected from the users to what is relevant to, and essential for, a specific purpose. Additionally, it involves retaining the data for only as long as necessary. Data minimization is one of the basic principles the GDPR endorses. It comes up in the data protection laws African countries have passed so far, CIO highlights.

The evolution of the telecom sector stands out through tremendous innovation that has brought about profound changes, many of them positive, in the way we work, learn, trade, and communicate. However, the sheer volume of data it generates has created understandable concerns around security. Telecom service providers and governments therefore need to carefully consider the measures they need to implement to balance telecom innovation and security. Through data anonymization and pseudonymization, the creation and harmonization of relevant regulations, user empowerment and responsible innovation, they can reach this balance and thus promote trust, security, and sustainability in this key economic sector.

Click here to read more about how GVG ensures data protection.