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Cyber-Surveillance Abuse in Africa

04 September, 2013
ICT Africa Writer
September 4, 2013

Several articles have been written on ICT Africa addressing cyber-surveillance , including how Deep Packet Inspection technology can be manipulated to monitor communications of the unsuspecting Internet user. African countries, in particular Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe have recently been in the news for snooping on their unsuspecting citizens.

If some of us were given guarantees that government cyber-surveillance was used solely for combating terrorism, cybercrime and for general national security we would make every effort to support African governments in such activities. The problem is that the line between using cyber-surveillance for lawful, ethical and justifiable law enforcement and the abuse of cyber-surveillance tools to squash political dissent is oftentimes blurry.

In Zimbabwe, the Independent paper reported the surveillance of targeted groups and individuals’ communications by the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) immediately after the recent elections. Such surveillance may have been carried on behalf of the ruling party against its opponents – an activity that cannot be characterised as national security.

The Zimbabwe Independent also reported the use of cyber-surveillance by the regime in Zimbabwe to monitor private conversations between the opposition leader’s wife and her alleged lover. Such behaviour is obviously gross violation of the victim’s personal liberties under the pretext of national security.

In Nigeria fixed and mobile phones and emails may soon be monitored lawfully on behalf of the federal government as the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) is expected to award a contract for the surveillance and intelligence gathering of all forms of electronic communications.

NCC has already invited tenders from a number of companies with proven experience to undertake consultancy for the award of 25 contracts. Some of the contracts which NCC will be awarding include: Review of the Readiness of Social Media Networks and its Implications for Telecommunications Regulation and National Security; Development of a Technical Framework for Data Filtering in Telecommunications Networks; and Development of a Technical Framework for the Use of Social Media Networks.

Nigeria had already been intercepting communications of its citizens through the telecommunication operators but this was deemed unlawful as there was no legal status to support the activities. In February, the NCC came up with the draft policy which empowers security agents to tap the communications of its citizens. There is a lot of concern among Nigerian citizens that such a policy may end up being used to violate the rights of lawful citizens.

South Africa is in the news for the 2009 “Zuma Spy Tapes” of former President Mbeki’s telephone conversation which were apparently recorded by the South African Intelligence Service on behalf of President Zuma. The tapes were meant to contain evidence that exonerated Mr. Zuma of charges against corruption that could have denied him the chance to be President. The rest is a long history but the important point is that even in South Africa, with relatively transparent legal and justice systems, politicians have the capacity to manipulate the Intelligence Service to use cyber-espionage against their opponents.


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