Why Kenyans Don't Care About "Privacy" But Care About "Not Being Surprised"

In 2007 Seth Godin opined that "people don't care about privacy; they care about not being surprised."

There's been a lot of noise about privacy over the last decade, but what most pundits miss is that most people don't care about privacy, not at all. If they did, they wouldn't have credit cards. Your credit card company knows an insane amount about you.

What people care about is being surprised.

If your credit card company called you up and said, "we've been looking over your records and we see that you've been having an extramarital affair. We'd like to offer you a free coupon for VD testing…" you'd freak out, and for good reason.

While his example is harsh, it raises an important and valuable point to consider the views of Kenyans and privacy with their behaviour, not with what they profess. I'll also quickly give the disclaimer that what I'm not doing or advocating for is negating people's right to privacy as enshrined in Kenya's bill of rights.

Instead, I think there's an interesting generational phenomenon that's on our hands, and that is worth considering. The more tech-savvy one is (and as more Kenyans acquire smartphones), the less likely one is to hold onto some ideals of privacy. 

Does Anyone Truly Behave and Believe In a Privacy-First Way?

Rising technological literacy, access, and upward mobility come with some degree of a decrease in liberties for privacy by its textbook definition. That is, until a certain point. Perhaps the most secretive or private people around are those with no phone number (or basic/smart phone) and do not use the internet or transact in mobile money or credit cards. This applies to people who are among the 'unconnected', those that can't afford to get a connection and participate (a number going down year on year according to the GSMA and mobile penetration data) and the 'disconnected' referring to those who are so self-actualised and concerned on privacy that they'll pay the price for it. 

The idea of a mobile phone, and a smartphone at that, is that it is a sophisticated surveillance device. Merely carrying one, let alone using it, is to exchange information between an individual and an institution (the mobile network operator in this case). When you layer mobile money on there, you have a whole new point of data (whether this is privileged or private is debatable). A bigger question is, if a court order is issued, what data is available? Turns out a lot.

There's often interest and curiosity at how crimes are solved nowadays, pinning people to a crime scene from the proximity of their phones to cell towers at certain times or text (or even encrypted) messages sent and received being used as evidence.

Not saying you can't use a VPN (many of which - especially the free VPNS - have questionable privacy policies) or get a Black Phone or find other approaches towards shortening the gap between possessing technology and privacy, but for millions of Kenyans and Africans this is a lot of energy for a topic that, for the sake of access to the internet, technology, and information is a lot to ask.

And for what it's worth, this doesn't just apply to mobile phones. Many vehicles around the globe come with technologies, chips, and features (especially imports from their countries of origin) that make them connected devices in and of themselves.

My point here is that possessing a mobile device and a smartphone, specifically, is, to be extreme, an 'anti-privacy' position. So is a mobile money account, and so is having a credit card, if the logic continues. This is to say that we're long past the original sin definition of privacy at this point because of the vast amounts of data we generate on phones made in China publishing on social media platforms from America connected to a British majority shareholder-owned mobile network operator.

"Kenyans Don't Care About Privacy..."

The question on privacy is whether people care about the concept of privacy. I've had the opportunity to interact with several clients over the years, and there's consensus that when the idea is explained to them (in focus group settings), Kenyans value privacy. However, their behaviour may provide another view to the cerebral exercise of asking them about their beliefs and understanding of the concept. 

If we look at mobile lending applications, they present an interesting point to consider. Being Silicon Savannah for the mass adoption and proliferation of mobile money like Safaricom's M-Pesa, Kenya has led to a range of businesses sitting on top of M-Pesa's infrastructure. One example is the mobile credit space. Here, the story would be told that there are +10,000 data points used in deciding how much to lend to a loan applicant using a Google Android phone. Instead of walking into a bank branch, waiting in line, and filling in forms to hand in, all they'd have to do for consideration of their application is download one of hundreds of mobile apps from credit providers. In each case, providing permission for their data to serve as their collateral. 

The lender would use qualitative (a questionnaire the user fills in about themselves) and quantitative/behavioural data such as a user's SMSes, call history, contacts list, mobile app list, screen time, and geolocation data. All of these feed into the data points to decipher whether to advance them $10, $100, or $1,000 over time, including their repayment history. 

I hypothesise that for the millions who have downloaded a lending app (and millions more), there's a slope on which all mobile users stand where gravity sinks them further away from the utmost concern for their privacy. Each day there are dozens of small tests and instances of this. Guards ask for names, phone numbers, identification cards, and personally identifiable information. Grey and black market SMS marketers send unsolicited messages hawking various wares. Things since changed with Google changing privacy policies, particularly around mobile lending apps, narrowing the pipe of data available over the years.

And as each coming generation comes of age from Gen Y, Gen Z, and Gen Alpha, my view is that the concept of privacy evolves with every passing generation - I view it as less concern since more services and experiences are being digitised along the way.

"Kenyans Do Care About Being Surprised"

If I can illustrate what I believe to be the real issue, it is about being surprised. I think that what Kenyans don't want is to be surprised. Whenever I've shown the 5 S's of the internet in Africa - Search, Sport, Social, Sex, and Stories I find an interesting set of conversations ensue because of the two vices - gambling and adult entertainment. This reflects itself in many other instances. 

With people's private data, the expectation is that most have left it before in public buildings and many locations but don't want to be surprised. An example of this was the unpleasant surprise of having paid with mobile money at a restaurant, supermarket or vendor only to find that this act was considered opting in to their marketing. 

On the one hand, people know that their phone number tied to their mobile money account can be used to create customer lifetime value charts, evaluate geolocation data of transaction sizes and more. Still, the surprise of an unsolicited message jolts one's privacy senses into action. 

People being surprised doesn't just have to do with negative examples. When NCBA Bank rebranded its NCBA Loop app, it surprised many. The neobank was relaunching after spinning off into a separate entity known as Loop Digital Financial Services. However, not only was there a rebrand of the bank logo but also an overhaul of their app's look and feel and the workflows, features, and design. 

The millions of minutes of muscle memory where users knew how to check their balance, make payments, and have invested in neural pathways to do certain activities effortlessly was replaced with a surprise - a novel experience. That upset a number of people, not to mention other hitches in the technical switchover during its relaunch. As far as I can tell, things have settled, but conversations still linger on why the change of the design (of the app and experience) rather than just the colours and other features. 

If I were to recommend a solution, it would be threefold (Nendo could help with all three). Firstly, conduct a thorough teardown on user experience and get user data from a cross-section of customers (recruiting based on data i.e high-volume transactors, high-value low-volume transactors, recently churned transactors and those that fully switched over positively). Secondly, study social media listening for gripes, complaints, knowledge gaps, and issues then build onboarding flows and information to speak to these direct areas. Thirdly (and to be considered cautiously) some people will leave - this is the law of (marketing) nature. Growth comes from penetration (reaching and recruiting many new customers), not loyalty (trying to keep the customers you already have). So get active in recruiting and ensuring new people switch and join to cater for those who would churn and leave anyway. 

OK, So What Now?

For customer experience professionals, there's a phrase - surprise and delight. The idea is that if you use the information for good, you can leave a customer with a smile that has them feeling that their private information was used for a positive purpose. The fact is that when they call, the person attending to them has all of their data on hand, including previous complaints and comments, and doesn't need to burden them with ticket/issue numbers. That's an example of a pleasant surprise enabled by technology, so it is not all gloom and doom. 

In a 2019 Nendo Trend Report on Mobile Data, I wrote that our future was one of class warfare where the wealthy could 'afford' privacy while those from the rest of society would have to part with data in exchange for some essential services. I still think this is the case. For everyone in the middle between the unconnected and the disconnected lie the people who are completely fine with lax privacy but they care about not being surprised.

My hope with writing this is that we reconsider some of the top-of-mind responses and gut reactions to matters of privacy. While well-to-do Kenyans hold a deep understanding of privacy and desire it, their behaviour may well show us that it isn't privacy that is their main concern but being surprised.

If you can think up some ways that Nendo can be of service to you, please be in touch: mark@nendo.co.ke.

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