The recent implementation of a surveillance system allowing real-time tracking of all vehicles within Uganda has raised concerns about privacy infringement and posed significant risks to freedoms of association and expression, the Human Rights Watch has warned. The organization urges the government to dismantle the system in a statement issued Tuesday morning.
The government launched the “Intelligent Transport Monitoring System” on November 1, 2023, purportedly to address national security challenges. It involves expanding the existing traffic surveillance system through a network of surveillance cameras and compulsory cellular-network-connected tracking devices fitted on all vehicles in Uganda.
“Uganda’s new transport surveillance system amounts to unchecked mass surveillance of all vehicles at all times, undermining the right to privacy for millions of Ugandans,” said Oryem Nyeko, Uganda researcher at Human Rights Watch, “The government should focus on protecting its citizens’ rights instead of abusing them.”
The lack of public scrutiny on the technical system, its capabilities, the contractual details with the Russian company managing the project, and the absence of published plans for oversight and human rights safeguards are concerning. Since 2018, Uganda has steadily increased its surveillance capabilities following President Yoweri Museveni’s introduction of a “nine-point security plan” in response to targeted killings of political and government figures by unidentified individuals on motorcycles.
The plan included implementing electronic license plates, purportedly aiding police in tracing vehicles found at crime scenes. In 2019, the Ugandan government procured $126 million worth of closed-circuit television camera (CCTV) surveillance technology from the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei for monitoring public spaces across Uganda. By July 2021, an agreement was announced with the Russian-registered company Joint Stock Company Global Security to establish the Intelligent Transport Monitoring System.
The initial operation of the system will involve both the government and the company for ten years, after which the company will transfer control to the government. According to Susan Kataike, the Spokesperson for the Works and Transport Ministry, the new system will introduce license plate recognition, facial recognition, and traffic density cameras, augmenting the existing network of CCTV cameras operated by the police.
Starting February 1, 2024, all vehicle owners must pay between 50,000 and 714,300 Uganda shillings (approximately $13 to $190) to register their vehicles with new plates equipped with a sim-card device provided by the state-owned Uganda Telecommunications Corporation Ltd (UTL). This device will enable real-time tracking of registered vehicles from the police national command center. Even foreign vehicles temporarily in Uganda will need these tracking devices during their stay.
The system will gather data from UTL’s and a privately-owned telecommunications company’s networks, expanding the number of corporate entities potentially accessing real-time vehicle locations in Uganda. This poses substantial human rights and security risks, as highlighted by Human Rights Watch. While other countries use technology allowing vehicle tracking via scanning, Uganda’s unique sim-card-based approach facilitating real-time tracking raises novel concerns.
In May, a parliamentary committee investigating the project concluded that the deal with the Joint Stock Security Company lacked adequate scrutiny, highlighting the government’s failure in due diligence. Abdallah Kiwanuka, a committee member, disclosed that the government hindered their visit to Russia, citing “security concerns,” and did not clarify data protection measures. On October 11, the deputy Parliament speaker announced the reassignment of a second investigation into the project to a classified committee, keeping the report inaccessible to the public, citing “national security.”
Previously, the Ugandan government used surveillance technology to monitor and apprehend government opponents and critics. In 2020, the police acknowledged using CCTV, facial recognition, and license plate recognition to identify and arrest alleged protestors before Uganda’s 2021 elections. Human Rights Watch documented arbitrary arrests and unlawful detentions during this period. Uganda already gathers extensive personal information, including names, signatures, photos, and fingerprints, for SIM card and national identity card registrations.
This mass data collection has instilled fear among journalists and restricted their work, as highlighted in a 2023 report by the Kampala-based African Centre for Media Excellence. In August 2022, plans were announced to include DNA and iris scan information in new identity cards. Uganda’s Data Protection and Privacy Act of 2019 allows the collection of personal data under the guise of “national security.”
However, both the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2002 and the Regulation of Interception of Communications Act of 2010 permit broad and contrary measures to international law, demanding strict necessity, proportionality, and non-discriminatory regulation for any intrusion on the right to privacy, including metadata gathering or surveillance of communication content.
“The scale and rate at which the Ugandan government is increasing its power to collect and store information about its citizens is alarming,” Nyeko said. “The authorities should focus on bolstering the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms instead of restricting them, and harmonize its domestic laws on limitations on the right to privacy with international law.”