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Dr. Robert Muthuri: Understanding the information controls and privacy in Kenya through research

We caught up with young and vibrant Dr. Robert Muthuri, a research fellow at the Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Technology  (CIPIT) to discuss more his area of research.

What do you understand by the term research?

Research is how we find out or learn about something that’s of interest to an individual. It could be in the form of a problem one would like to fix or a passion one desires to engage in further. For your research to be effective, you begin by understanding the context and nature of the problem. Thereafter, one curates the objectives and the hypothesis that will help you test the truthfulness of your outcomes.

Any particular focus area?

My area of focus is in legal-tech and legal informatics where I get to understand innovation spaces, and how to regulate emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), the blockchain, just to mention a few. I am involved in business modelling, legal argumentation, and system requirements design. We are quickly learning that new and disruptive technologies rarely have laws to regulate them. It is thus important to work on tools that can inform our clients about their legal risks. Disruptive technologies are a double-edged sword. On one hand, they can revolutionize the world but on the other, they can be harmful to our individual human rights. Therefore, the right balance is key to ensuring both are equally protected.

What has been your most impactful research?

Earlier this year, a scandal was revealed in reference to Cambridge Analytica. This came to the forefront just as myself and a team were researching on the privacy implications of adopting biometrics in Kenya, following a lead we had received that various people were receiving texts from certain political aspirants asking for their vote. Did you receive such a text, Anne? “As a matter of fact, I did” I chuckled. So yes, we wanted to understand how they had accessed such private information. Our research findings had parallels in the tactics that Cambridge Analytica had claimed to use in Kenya, Nigeria, the United States, and the United Kingdom Brexit elections.

How does the research you are undertaking solve tomorrow’s problems?

In this age of Linked Data, Open Data and Big Data, we have to understand how all the data we are producing can both be leveraged for business, social innovations and how ordinary people, particularly young people, who are generating the bulk of this data, can protect themselves. In early November, the CEO of Apple, Tim Cook called for a US Federal (nation-wide) law on privacy. Moreover, in May, the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was passed to modernize laws that protect the personal information of individuals. Here in Kenya, the current options for data protection such as privacy policies, self-regulation, or certification schemes aren’t working well enough. We are currently working with partners such as Privacy International and the Ford Foundation to conduct further research to design better local solutions.

 How do students view research?

I did my Bachelor of Laws in Moi University at a time when the culture was drifting towards a bias in research. During my time, one of our faculty, Maurice Oduor, ensured that each student had written six research articles: One during judicial attachment in 2nd year, two clinicals in 3rd year, two more in 4th year and the dissertation. This gave us rigor because research can be daunting for students.

At the Strathmore Law School, we have several research centres where students can intern and build their research skills. At the Centre for Intellectual Property and Information Technology (CIPIT) we run a blog https://blog.cipit.org/where students can test their skills. Our previous cohort of interns just completed a #DigitalRightseries. We are also developing an online and offline-makers space that will bring together different people to work on capstone projects. Currently, the interns are working on videos to break down complex concepts such as net neutrality, surveillance or transparency. This year, we opened up the internship programme to other faculties within the university. As we speak, Brenda Karanja is an actuarial student working on a project to understand “Alternative Credit Scoring in FinTech” and its impact on privacy.

Any challenges and tips to overcome?

 35 percent of universities in Kenya do not have sufficient laboratories and research centres for effective research. A recent CPS report showed that the Government of Kenya spent 0.8% on research funding which is 2.2 % less the minimum recommended UNESCO rate. If we do not address these challenges quickly, we will continue to witness continued brain drain to the West, and now to the East.

At a personal level, research can be time-consuming, and sometimes one has to make sacrifices to move to the region where the skills, mentors and funding are available. Relevant partners and building relationships across the globe are key to becoming a successful researcher. Also, rejection is part and parcel of a researcher’s life. You need to learn to embrace it.

As we are just about to part ways, I am not only inspired by his knowledge but his calm demeanor in getting his points across. I will leave you with a Bible verse he shared.

Ecclesiastes 8: 1 Who is like the wise? Who knows the explanation of things? A person’s wisdom brightens their face and changes its hard appearance.


Dr. Robert Muthuri has a joint doctoral degree in law, science and Technology – LAST JD, an LLM from the University of Edinburgh, a Diploma in Law from Kenya School of Law and a Bachelor of Laws from Moi University.

This article was compiled by Anne Njoroge

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