In last year’s general election in Kenya, Linet Kwamboka received a surprising SMS from a candidate for parliament. The text message that flashed onto her screen called her by name, identified her polling location in Nairobi, and then asked her to vote for the candidate.
“That is supposed to be my private information,” she said. “No one really should know that. And I’m an informed person. What happens to people who are not informed when they sign up to things that they are not fully aware about?”
As a mission-driven not-for profit, one of Mozilla’s core principles is that individuals’ security and privacy are fundamental to the online experience, wherever they happen to be connected. Kwamboka is carrying this idea through her Mozilla Fellowship by analyzing data security policies in East Africa and teaching people why data collection and digital privacy are serious issues.
“The story of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook has unfolded right in front of our eyes,” she said. “Seeing people start to think seriously about what parts of their lives they are allowing complete strangers to have access to and how that is being used to influence their thoughts and actions, is not only fun but very validating for the path I have chosen.”
Kwamboka grew up in Kenya’s western county of Nyamira, the last born in a family of eight children. She didn’t use a computer until she was 18 when she started studying computer science at college. She caught on quickly, and fell in love with the unlimited potential offered by computers and the internet. After university, she went on to lead Kenya’s Open Data Initiative for six years, pushing the government to make more information open and publicly available. As a champion for open data — data anyone can access, use or share — Kwamboka saw it as an equalizing force that could enable Kenyans from every region of the country to join in economic growth and help solve societal problems.
“Around this time I also realized that we were not explaining very well to the public what it means to have useful data publicly published and accessible,” she said.
Through her Mozilla Fellowship, Kwamboka is investigating why people don’t think as critically about data protection as they should. While the internet has created a level playing field for developing nations to access information and participate more fully in the global economy, it has also put these fresh internet citizens at risk. Kwamboka has seen western startups come into Africa and take advantage of the lack of government oversight by collecting loads of data and personal information from users.
“We could all have expectations the private sector is going to take care of this, or that the government should somehow understand and know what we need so that they can protect our information,” she said.
“But if we, consumers, do not meet them halfway, if we do not safeguard what we are putting out of the internet and what we’re sharing, then it’s going to be a hard task. So let’s start today by protecting ourselves, by really caring about what we’re sharing between friends and with strangers. Because you do not know what is going to happen.”