Skip Navigation LinksUJs-Prof-Tshilidzi-Marwala-sheds-light-on-data-privacy-in-the-era-of-AI UJ’s Prof Tshilidzi Marwala sheds light on data privacy in the era of AI


UJ’s Prof Tshilidzi Marwala sheds light on data privacy in the era of AI


Publishing Date: 9/25/2018 8:00 AM

The Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and the author of the upcoming book Deep Learning and Missing Data in Engineering Systems, Prof Tshilidzi Marwala recently penned an opinion piece, On mirrors and land: Data privacy in the era of artificial intelligence, published by the Sunday Independent, 23 September 2018.

On mirrors and land: Data privacy in the era of artificial intelligence

There is an urban legend that states that African people exchanged their lands for mirrors.  This legend was dramatised by the first President of Kenya Jomo Kenyatta aptly when he said: "When the missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the missionaries had the Bible. They taught us how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible". An exchange of land for a mirror or any book is not a good business deal; it is irrational and probably did not happen.

In terms of utility theory, mirrors have significantly lower utility than land. The utility is an economic concept that simply means the usefulness of a particular good or service. Rational beings can only accept the exchange of goods and services if the exchange will result in additional satisfaction, which in economics is called marginal utility. For example, if Mbali has R5000 and Thendo has an iPhone, then Thendo will accept the R5000 in exchange of the iPhone if he thinks the relative value of an R5000 is higher than that of the iPhone. Conversely, Mbali will accept the iPhone in exchange for the R5000 if she thinks the relative value of the iPhone is higher than that of the R5000.

But sadly, we live in an era where many people in our society are making transactions similar to the exchange of mirrors for lands. We live in an era where we are told that many vital goods are demonetised. Demonetised goods mean that these goods are free. Of course, there is no free lunch, and never was! We are told that the company Google gives us the Gmail account for free. We are also told that the company Facebook gives us the WhatsApp and Facebook accounts for free. We are told that we no longer need to pay for video conferencing because we can make video calls for free using WhatsApp. Of course for us to make such video or voice calls using WhatsApp, we need data; which we can buy from Telkom, MTN or any South African telecoms company.    

These demonetised goods such as Gmail, WhatsApp and Facebook accounts are not free because they are given to us in exchange for our personal data. Once we subscribe to these accounts we surrender our personal data and consequently, we are monitored 24 hours, not by a person but by sophisticated software. These organisations know our movements, what we like and do not like, what we eat, what websites we visit, etc. If you are walking in the shopping mall and you realise that someone is following you and is recording all your movements, you will be terrified. Why then are we not terrified about being followed by Google or Twitter or Facebook artificial intelligent software? We are not terrified of the online follower, i.e. software agents – as opposed to the offline follower, i.e. human agents, because the online follower pretends that it is not there. We do not hear its footsteps nor do we see its shadow reflected on a window pane. These "borderless" companies extract much more value from the people that subscribe to them than the value they give. This simply means that those of us who are subscribed to these technologies are not acting rationally because we benefit far less than what these companies gain from us.

What are the implications on South Africa's security if many of our people are subscribed to these technologies and thus are being monitored? Many of our top leaders in politics, business and society are subscribed to these technologies. These people, when they send messages to one another through Gmail accounts, their messages often move from South Africa to the United States and then back to South Africa. This means that such messages can be intercepted and be used in a manner that is not in the best interest of our country.

So what have other countries done to prevent such breach of security? China has barred these companies from operating. Gulf countries like the United Arab Emirates have limited certain services like WhatsApp calling. Even though the authoritarian and economic protectionist explanations of this ban cannot be discounted, the security aspect is more persuasive. For example, neither Gmail nor Facebook nor Twitter nor WhatsApp accounts work in China. For those of us who have travelled to China, we have experienced the extreme withdrawal syndrome of not having access to WhatsApp nor Gmail nor Facebook nor Twitter accounts. This means we are not only selling our data to these companies but we are addicted to selling our data to these companies. The Chinese, having experienced the Opium Wars with Great Britain (which was involved in the opium drug trade) between 1839 and 1860 do not want to take lightly the security risk that will compromise their sovereignty. The opium trade by Britain made the Chinese population addicted to opium to the detriment of China's development. Consequently, China fell off as the largest economy in the world and lost Hong Kong to Britain for 150 years. China can, therefore, not afford to be addicted to the new form of opium, i.e. western social media companies, as this can result in the monitoring of movements of their population to the detriment of their national security. What China has decided to do is to create its own versions of these technologies such as Baidu instead of Google, WeChat instead of WhatsApp and Weibo instead of Twitter.

There is a field of engineering called Control Systems. Control systems is a technology that is used in our aircraft to identify the optimum altitude that will result in less turbulence. This technology is used widely in our factories whether in making beer or manufacturing cars. One of the first principles of Control Systems is that if one wants to control any system or object, the first task is to monitor it. These social networking companies are also monitoring the behaviours and movements of our people, and if we take the idea from Control Systems to its logical conclusion, in order to control and influence people. Are we happy with some company in California remote controlling our lives? Is this what our leaders such as Steve Biko and Robert Sobukwe died for? Is this what Govan Mbeki and Walter Sisulu went to jail for? Is this what Chris Hani and Oliver Tambo went to exile for?

What then is to be done to ensure that the large-scale surrender of personal data to companies domiciled in the USA or any other part of the world does not result in the colonisation of the special type? Firstly, we need to create a regulatory framework around the use of our domestic data across the border. Secondly, we need to educate our population on the need to understand the concept of exchanging personal data for an email or social network account and the implication thereof. This should include infusing this education at all levels, be it at the primary, secondary, tertiary and even adult-based education. Thirdly, and perhaps more difficult, we need to start thinking about creating our own national and perhaps continental social networking companies. In this regard, South Africa must understand the managed services providers (MSPs) and learn how to price them in order to achieve digital sovereignty. The experience of China and to some extent Russia will be useful in this regard. Fourthly, we need to stop our political leaders from using these accounts because this compromises our national security. The measure of how serious a country is, is by how many of its top leaders use Gmail accounts, as opposed to sovereign accounts to conduct their business. Coming back to education, the measure of how serious a university is, is by how much its leaders use Gmail accounts to conduct business rather than university accounts. We have to fight for our sovereignty. Lastly, whoever controls data controls the future and South Africa must invest in data technology. We need a transactional system that is rational, reciprocal and fair so that we protect our data and sovereignty.   

The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.