ICT Africa Writer
March 10, 2013
It is never advisable to use mobile phones for confidential or sensitive communications. Wireless communications by nature are very insecure because the signals are out there in open space for anybody to intercept. There were times when any kid who could afford a hundred or so dollars could walk into an electronics shop and buy a radio scanner to intercept several forms of communications. They would use the scanners to listen to their neighbours’ conversations, police radio communications, pilots communicating with air traffic controllers or any other forms of wireless communications. While encryptions and regulation requiring manufacturers to block mobile frequencies on radio scanners have somewhat curtailed these sort of activities, many can still get around the restrictions and intercept your communications.
Wherever possible, fixed line phones should be used for confidential and sensitive information. We are cognizant of the fact that many small businesses and individuals in Africa have no access to wire-line phones, but every effort should be taken not to use mobile phones for sensitive communications if you want to prevent the information from falling into wrong hands. While copper wires have been tapped in the past by taking advantage of the electromagnetic radiation emitted by the signal being transmitted, this is extremely rare and more difficult than intercepting mobile signals. It gets even more difficult, if not outright impossible; to tape telecommunications transmitted through fibre optic links.
While you can avoid leaking sensitive information in open airwaves to malicious hackers by using secure fixed line communication systems, there is little you can do about communication monitoring by government departments. The monitoring of communications by organs of government is very common throughout the world. The USA Federal Bureaux of Investigation (FBI), for example, requires USA telecommunication operators to create “digital backdoors” so that they can monitor all digital communications by American citizens. The FBI uses an Act of law, known as the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act for their monitoring activities. They argue that by monitoring all communications, they can intercept communications by terrorists and prevent terrorist attacks on US citizens.
China requires telecommunications and Internet service providers to detect, stop and report leaks of “state secrets” by customers of the service providers, a move that is seen by some as a way to strengthen the Chinese government’s control over private communications. The Chinese authorities claim that by monitoring communications of companies and private citizens they are protecting state secretes which, if disclosed, could damage China’s security or interests in political, economic, defence and other realms. But the West accuses China of using the surveillance of communications to deny citizens their basic human rights.
It is not surprising that a number of African countries, especially those who have adopted the “Look East Policy” are following the Chinese policy of monitoring the communications of private companies and citizens. A number of countries, including Ethiopia, Zambia and Zimbabwe have contracted the Chinese to implement technologies to spy on the communications of their citizens. The so called deep packet inspection technology (DPI) is reportedly being used by some African governments to monitor communication traffic from specific Internet Protocol (IP) addresses and spy on email even as it is being typed out by the user.
In Ethiopia, the Chinese government has even been accused of helping the Ethiopian government to block news websites and media that do not report positively on the government. Using the Chinese technology, the Ethiopian government is reported to have jammed the Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT) and other broadcasters, including the Voice of America and Germany's Deutsche Welle Amharic service.
Sometimes members of government departments, usually secret intelligent agents, are used by individual members of the ruling elite to monitor communications of their opponents. So while it is reasonable for governments to monitor communications to protect against terrorist or other subversive activities, this can be abused. It is very important that we are all aware of the potential dangers of communicating sensitive information over conventional communication systems and take necessary precautions.