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South African Protection of Personal Information Act, 2013

Posted by Divij Joshi at Apr 16, 2014 04:00 PM |
As the rapid spread of technology in developing countries allows exponentially increasing availability of and access to personal data through automatic data processing, governments are beginning to recognize the necessity to evolve policies addressing data security and privacy concerns.

The source of pressure for strict legal regulations addressing data protection are both the growing recognition of the importance of privacy rights, as well as the risk of falling behind on international standards on data protection, which would hamper the potential of developing countries as destinations for outsourcing industries which depend largely on processing of information.[1] The Protection of Personal Information Act enacted by South Africa is an example of a policy which enables a comprehensive framework for data security and privacy and is a model for other developing nations which are weighing the costs and benefits of establishing a secure data protection regime.

The South African law traces the right to protection of personal information back to Section 14 of the South African Constitution, which provides for a right against the unlawful collection, retention, dissemination and use of personal information. The law establishes strict restrictions and regulations on the processing of personal information, which includes information including relating to race, gender, sexual orientation, medical information, biometric information and personal opinion. The processing of personal information under the Act must comply with 8 principles, namely - accountability, lawful purpose for processing and processing limitation, purpose specification, information quality, openness and notice of collection, openness, reasonable security safeguards and subject participation, in line with the international standards for fair information practices.[2] The Act also recognizes ‘special personal information’, including religious or political beliefs, race, sexual orientation and trade union membership, as well as any personal information of children below the age of 18, which require stricter safeguards for processing,. Similar to the draft Indian legislation on privacy, the Act contemplates an independent regulatory mechanism, the information regulator, which would have all the necessary powers to effectively monitor compliance under the Act, including the power for punishing offences under the Act.

The Protection of Personal Information Act contains 115 Sections and is meant to be an exhaustive and heavily detailed policy to bring South Africa’s laws in line with EU and international regulations on data protection.[3] Though such progressive policies should be a model for policy changes in other developing nations, one aspect in which the law fails is to address increasing privacy concerns arising from widespread government-enabled surveillance and data retention. The POPI excludes from its application the processing of information related to national security, terrorist related activities and public safety, combating of money laundering, investigation of proof of offences, the prosecution of offenders, execution of sentences or other security measures, subject to adequate safeguards being established by the legislature for protection of personal information. Unfortunately, the ambiguous wording of the exclusions, especially in determining “adequate safeguards”, leaves its interpretation and application open for governments to engage in mass surveillance in the name of public security. Over the past few years, governments have taken to using technology and information, particularly through mass surveillance, to collect comprehensive information on their citizens and violate their liberties and privacy. In India, particularly with programs like the Central Monitoring System being implemented, any policy which purportedly aims at the protection of privacy must not only seek bare minimal compliances with the current international standards for data protection, but should also address the mass, unrestricted surveillance and data retention which is taking place in the name of public security.

Developing nations like South Africa and India face significant challenges in ensuring individual privacy, particularly the lack of sufficient legal safeguards for the protection of privacy. The right to privacy is often dismissed as an elitist or western concept, which does not have value in the context of developing nations, without engaging with the realities and the nuances of the right. Further, the costs of expensive technical safeguards means private and public bodies are required to spend significant resources in maintaining data security and these factors often outweigh privacy considerations in policy debates. The South African Act, hence, serves both as an important model for legislation and as an indication that the right to privacy is valuable to recognize in developing countries as well.


[1]. Article 25 of the European Union Directive on the Protection of Individuals with regard to the Processing of Personal Data and on the Free Movement of such data (Directive 95/46/EC) prohibits the transfer of data to non-member states which do not comply with adequate data protection norms.

[2]. http://oecdprivacy.org/

[3]. Link to Act: www.gov.za/documents/download.php?f=204368

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