Human Rights Watch has expressed serious concerns regarding Uganda’s new “Intelligent Transport Monitoring System,” a surveillance system that tracks the real-time location of all vehicles in the country.
Implemented on November 1, 2023, the system is said to pose a significant threat to privacy rights and could adversely affect freedom of association and expression. The system, purportedly established to address national security issues, expands Uganda’s existing traffic surveillance network.
It involves surveillance cameras and mandatory cellular-network-connected tracking devices on all vehicles. Human Rights Watch Uganda researcher Oryem Nyeko criticized the system for its potential to enable unchecked mass surveillance, urging the government to prioritize citizens’ rights.
The government has been criticized for limited transparency regarding the system’s technical aspects and its contract with the Russian company responsible for the project. There are no published plans for oversight or human rights mitigation.
Uganda’s surveillance capacity has been expanding since 2018, follow- ing President Museveni’s “nine-point security plan,” which included electronic license plates for tracking vehicles at crime scenes. In 2019, the government procured surveillance technology from Huawei and later partnered with the Russian Joint Stock Company Global Security for the Intelligent Transport Monitoring System.
Susan Kataike, spokesperson for the Works and Transport ministry, stated that the new system would introduce advanced surveillance technologies, including license plate and facial recognition cameras. Vehicle owners will be required to register their vehicles with new sim-card-equipped plates, provided by Uganda Telecommunications Corporation Ltd (UTL), enabling real-time tracking.
Human Rights Watch highlighted the risks associated with this system, noting its capacity to collect data from multiple telecommunications networks. The system’s novelty compared to other countries and the lack of adequate parliamentary scrutiny further compound these concerns.
A parliamentary investigation into the project faced obstacles, and a second inquiry’s findings will remain classified, accessible only to a select few.
The use of surveillance technology in Uganda, especially during the 2021 elections, has been associated with the tracking and arrest of government opponents and critics. Uganda’s data collection practices, including plans to incorporate DNA and iris scan information in identity cards, have already created a climate of fear among journalists, according to a report by the African Centre for Media Excellence.
Uganda’s legal framework, including the Data Protection and Privacy Act of 2019 and the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2002, provides for data collection under the pretext of “national security to international law, which requires privacy intrusions to be necessary, proportionate and non-discriminatory.
Nyeko urges the Ugandan government to focus on reinforcing fundamental rights and freedoms and align its domestic laws with international privacy standards.