The Somali region hosts some of the most ambitious experiments in technological innovation. This is surprising for a region that is often characterized as lawless. But it has been precisely this lack of regulation that has enabled tremendous adaptation and creativity. Private telecoms companies have been driving much of this, and the Somali region just surpassed Kenya (historically the market leader) for the pervasiveness and dominance of mobile money its economy (World Bank, 2018). The approach to technological innovation in Somalia has been one that is grounded in local efforts to find solutions to development and life challenges that are pervasive in a persistent conflict situation.
Concerns about security (and carrying money), the importance of remittances and a transnational diaspora community, and the lack of a formal banking sector, have all encouraged the development of new ways of using technology to address these challenges. In general, Somalis have been eager adopters of technology and communities have trusted the solutions and products offered by private companies (Stremlau and Osman, 2016). The recent biometric elections in Somaliland are an example of a willingness to tolerate, and to some degree embrace, technological intrusions into public and democratic life. Voter registration requiring iris scanning was accepted even by rural populations that have historically have less exposure to such technologies. This has been called ‘technological leapfrogging’ by some (Juma, 2017) but also raises questions of the willingness to experiment with enrolling and using citizens data to an unprecedented degree.
This degree of biometric registration is less likely to be tolerated in many European or North American countries, despite that this is where the technology companies are based and the funding for the biometric elections came from. Notably there have been few debates around privacy in Somaliland about the biometric data, including where it is stored, for how long, and who has access to it. There do, however, seem to be some rising concerns about this oversight in the humanitarian sector, particularly because it collects significant amounts of data (including cell phone numbers, names, locations, birthdays, etc) and western donors are increasingly raising concerns and encouraging greater protections in their grants.