Uganda's License Plate Tracking Raises Human Rights Issues

Human Rights Watch

Uganda's new surveillance system, which allows the government to track the real time location of all vehicles in the country, undermines privacy rights, and creates serious risks to the rights to freedom of association and expression, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should scrap the system.

On November 1, 2023, the government initiated the "Intelligent Transport Monitoring System," allegedly to address national security issues. The authorities say it will build on the country's existing traffic surveillance system with a network of surveillance cameras and mandatory cellular-network-connected tracking devices on all vehicles in the country.

"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 government has limited public scrutiny of the technical system and its capabilities and the contract with the Russian company delivering the project, and has published no plans for oversight and human rights mitigation around the project.

Since 2018, the Ugandan government has progressively expanded its surveillance capacity after President Yoweri Museveni unveiled a "nine-point security plan" to respond to a series of killings of high-profile political and government figures by unidentified people riding on motorcycles. Museveni's plan included the introduction of electronic license plates, which he said would enable police to track down the owners of vehicles discovered to have been at crime scenes.

In 2019, the government procured US$126 million worth of closed-circuit television camera (CCTV) surveillance technology from the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei to monitor public spaces across Uganda. In July 2021, the government announced that it had entered an agreement with the Joint Stock Company Global Security, a Russian-registered company, to set up the Intelligent Transport Monitoring System.

Both the government and the company will operate the system for the first 10 years, after which the company will hand it over to the government, the authorities said.

Susan Kataike, the spokesperson for the Works and Transport Ministry, told Human Rights Watch that the new system will introduce new license plate recognition and surveillance, facial recognition, and traffic density cameras, which will "complement" an already existing network of CCTV cameras operated by the police.

As part of the system, all vehicle owners will, after February 1, 2024, be required to pay between 50,000 and 714,300 Uganda shillings (about US$13 to US$190) to register their vehicles for new plates that will have an attached sim-card-equipped device provided by the state-owned telecommunications company, Uganda Telecommunications Corporation Ltd (UTL).

The device will allow the government to track the location of all registered vehicles from the police national command center in real time. Foreign vehicles temporarily in Uganda will also be required to install the tracking devices for the time they are in the country.

The system will collect data from UTL's telecommunications network, as well as the network of a privately owned telecommunications company, increasing the number of corporate private actors with potential access to the real-time location of all vehicles in Uganda. This creates serious human rights and security risks, Human Rights Watch said.

Several other countries use technology that allows for vehicles to be tracked when authorities can scan them. But Uganda's sim-card-based approach that will allow the government to track vehicles in real time is novel.

In May, members of a parliamentary committee that was tasked to investigate the project in early 2023 concluded that that the deal between the government and Joint Stock Security Company had not been scrutinized adequately and that the government had failed to conduct proper due diligence concerning the company. Abdallah Kiwanuka, a member of the Defense and Internal Affairs Committee, told Human Rights Watch that the government blocked the parliament members from visiting Russia to learn more about the system because of the "security situation" in Russia. Kiwanuka also said that the government did not explain to the committee how the data would be protected.

On October 11, the deputy Parliament speaker, Thomas Tayebwa, announced that a second investigation by Parliament into the project would be reassigned to a classified committee whose report would not be made public because "this is about the security of the country." Tayebwa announced that only the classified committee, the security minister, the Parliament speaker, and the president will have access to it.

The government has, in the past, used surveillance technology to track and arrest government opponents and critics. In 2020, the police confirmed that they used CCTV, facial recognition, and license plate recognition technology to track down and arrest alleged protesters in the period leading up to Uganda's 2021 elections. Human Rights Watch has documented the arbitrary arrest and unlawful detention of people alleged to have taken part in protests during this period.

/Public Release. This material from the originating organization/author(s) might be of the point-in-time nature, and edited for clarity, style and length. Mirage.News does not take institutional positions or sides, and all views, positions, and conclusions expressed herein are solely those of the author(s).View in full here.