Security or Surveillance? Examining Uganda’s Vehicle Number Plate Initiative

Digital Number Plates
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The introduction of Uganda’s new vehicle number project has encountered resistance from various quarters, including the highest levels of government. On November 1, a demonstration of the project was held by the Minister for Security, Maj. Gen. Jim Muhwezi, accompanied by the Minister of Works and Transport, Gen. Katumba Wamala. This demonstration aimed to unveil the design of the new government vehicle number plates and the installation process.

However, it became evident during the event that the project was still in the preliminary stages. The “bonded warehouses” intended for the installation of these number plates were still under construction and not operational. Furthermore, essential details about the digital or electronic features of the new plates remained elusive.

The new number plates were presented as a potential tool for law enforcement agencies to swiftly and accurately identify vehicles and their owners. This information was obtained from the official website of the Intelligent Transport Monitoring System (ITMS), which hosts the project, but was not accompanied by any further specifics.

Labeling the new number plate initiative as a “system,” as suggested by the Intelligent Transport Monitoring System (ITMS) designation, was criticized by experts consulted by The Independent. According to conventional standards, Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) require structured data centers or clouds to process and distribute information to road users and project implementers. This necessitates equipping vehicles with the technology to both transmit and receive necessary information.

Initially, there were discussions of embedding Bluetooth chips in the number plates and assigning unique identification codes to each vehicle. However, it now appears that monitoring and tracking will primarily rely on the existing police CCTV camera network. In essence, this suggests that the claimed new system might not be as innovative as it appears.

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Typically, digital number plates employ RFID (radio frequency identification) tagging, which stores data such as vehicle journeys, taxes, fees, penalties, and accident histories. However, Muhwezi’s number plates are only considered digital due to the inclusion of a Global Positioning System (GPS) device for tracking the vehicle’s location. This technology is not dissimilar to the GPS trackers found in many mobile phones. The decision to require vehicle owners to take their vehicles to designated “bonded warehouses” hints at potential undisclosed installations that could infringe on vehicle owners’ privacy.

In contrast to Uganda, Kenya introduced similar “digital” number plates in August 2022. However, the Kenyan government did not mandate vehicle owners to use “bonded warehouses” for installation. In Kenya, new plates are fitted at the point of entry for imported vehicles, while owners of previously registered vehicles can apply online for the new plates.

If the purpose of mandating bonded warehouses in Uganda is not to install secret surveillance devices, it raises concerns about the project’s financial viability. The maintenance and replacement costs, particularly for accidental damage or theft, could make this storage approach expensive, inconvenient, and unsustainable.

Extension of the ‘Smart City’ Concept?

Both Kenya and Uganda appear to pursue similar goals through the introduction of new number plates on vehicles. However, their respective approaches to promoting these plates differ significantly.

In Kenya, the new number plates were introduced to combat forgery, swapping, and duplication of number plates, which were prevalent crimes. The project was managed by the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) under the Ministry of Roads and Transport and was promoted as a measure to enhance safety in Kenyan cities.

One prominent outcome of this initiative was the extensive surveillance in Nairobi, where Huawei’s communication networks linked 1,800 surveillance cameras with 195 police stations and 7,600 police officers. This robust surveillance system featured high-definition cameras, wireless devices for field officers, and satellite-based GPS technology.

Uganda similarly initiated a “safe city” technology project, but it faced criticism when The Wall Street Journal reported that Huawei, the project’s implementer, had enabled government security agencies to surveil political opponents, including Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, the leader of the National Unity Platform (NUP).

The installation of CCTV cameras in Kampala commenced in July 2019, following the directive of President Museveni after the 2017 murder of Assistant Inspector General of Police Felix Kaweesi. In August 2019, the Uganda Police Force purchased facial recognition cameras from Huawei as part of the “Safe City” agreement.

Huawei’s “safe city” technology, which has been deployed in more than 230 cities worldwide, is presented as a means to detect and prevent crime. However, privacy advocates express concerns about the potential misuse of facial recognition technology by governments and law enforcement to suppress individual freedoms.

The difference lies in the objectives of these governments’ implementations: whether they aim to serve the interests of their citizens or not.

The New Number Plates: Features and Cost

While Kenya’s new number plates feature a Quick Response (QR) code for data storage and quick accessibility, Uganda’s new plates remain shrouded in secrecy regarding their features. The Kenyan plates also include a National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) serial number, the national flag, and a hologram. Additionally, a microchip stores comprehensive information about the vehicle, including ownership, color, year of manufacture, vehicle type, and chassis number.

In Kenya, the cost of new plates is Kshs 3,000 (approximately US$20) for vehicles and Kshs 1,500 for motorcycles. In Uganda, new vehicle or motorbike plates will cost Shs 714,000 (approximately US$190), while replacement plates for already registered vehicles will be Shs 150,000 (US$40) for vehicles and Shs 50,000 (US$14) for motorcycles.

In essence, the new number plate project primarily serves a security purpose, allowing security agencies to instantly identify and potentially monitor or track vehicles. An agreement between the Government of Uganda and M/S Joint Stock Company Global Security was signed in July 2021 to provide a digital “monitoring and tracking system through a real-time control and monitoring center.”

However, experts familiar with the project find it unclear how the installation of a GPS device on a number plate constitutes a real-time monitoring and tracking “system.”

Curiously, government officials are marketing the project as a transportation improvement initiative, referring to it as the Intelligent Transport Monitoring System (ITMS). In typical cities with ITMS, the primary goal is to manage traffic flow efficiently based on various factors.

Muhwezi’s ITMS, on the other hand, is portrayed as a tool for accurately mapping all vehicles in an area in the event of a crime. It is also being promoted as a means to create jobs, possibly up to 1,000 new positions, and enhance vehicle security and crime control in the country.

What raises eyebrows is the government’s request for the public to fund a system that would allow the government to track and monitor their movements, a service that most vehicle owners are reluctant to embrace.

Opposition and Controversy

The opposition to the new number plate project is substantial, to the extent that Gen. Muhwezi, who signed the contract between the government and a Russian company to install digital monitoring systems in all motorcycles and vehicles, has sought to distance himself from the controversy by invoking President Yoweri Museveni’s involvement.

Muhwezi has asserted that the procurement process for the company began five years prior to his appointment as Security Minister. He claims that President Museveni issued the directive on June 13, 2021, even before Muhwezi assumed his ministerial role.

In the face of public criticism, Muhwezi’s contract with the allegedly financially troubled Joint Stock Company Global Security came under scrutiny. At the time, the company was facing bankruptcy litigations in Russia and several debt-related legal battles.

Despite the controversy surrounding the company, Muhwezi highlighted that due diligence was conducted by a government team in December 2018, and the Attorney General’s office approved the contract.

Nevertheless, Joint Stock Company Global Security faced legal disputes, including a case filed by LLC “Rus Prom-Technologies” in Russia, and a separate case regarding failure to pay debts. Yet, in August, Minister for Internal Affairs Maj. Gen. (Rtd) Kahinda Otafiire claimed he had no knowledge of the company, Joint Stock Company Global Security, which was responsible for issuing the digital number plates in Uganda. Otafiire, responsible for the police, expressed ignorance about the project and revealed that a due diligence team assigned to investigate the company’s background returned with no pertinent information.

In contrast, President Museveni affirmed his commitment to the project, despite the controversies surrounding it. The project remained on his agenda, emphasizing the importance of electronic number plates.

The Need for Regulatory Frameworks

The deployment of ‘Safe City’ programs in sub-Saharan Africa, including Uganda and Kenya, reflects an increasing trend in urban surveillance initiatives. However, these initiatives often face challenges related to human rights and data protection.

Dorothy Mukasa, CEO of Unwanted Witness, a Ugandan digital rights advocacy organization, expressed concerns about Huawei’s Safe City initiative’s potential threat to human rights, particularly the right to peaceful assembly and association.

In many African countries, the fundamentals of privacy and data protection are still being established. This situation has led to gaps in ensuring that national security and state surveillance programs are proportionate, fair, and compliant with international norms and standards.

To safeguard human rights, more effective policy, legal, and regulatory frameworks are essential. Without these frameworks, the apprehension surrounding facial recognition surveillance, even when promoted as “smart cities” or “safe cities,” is likely to persist, particularly in states with a poor human rights record.

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