The Observer (Kampala)

Uganda: Phone Tapping - Govt Seeks 200 Billion

The government is looking for Shs 205bn to purchase equipment and establish systems for the interception of communication and registration of simcards.

This request is contained in the ministerial policy statement for the Office of the Presidency for financial year 2012/2013. The money will be channelled through the Internal Security Organisation, which will work closely with the Office of the President. The statement, tabled before Parliament this week, neither gives details about the nature or type of equipment to be purchased nor a breakdown of how the money will be spent.

All the statement says is that the money will be used to "procure and acquire assorted classified communication equipment."

The statement says the equipment was supposed to be purchased last year but it was not possible because of financial constraints.

How it works

In July 2010, Parliament passed a bill, seeking to authorise the tapping of telephones and other private communication for security purposes. President Museveni assented to it a couple of months later. Now law, it provides for interception and monitoring of certain communication in the course of transmission. It also allows the monitoring of postal or any other related service or system.

The law stipulates that only a designated judge issues a warrant of interception if there is reasonable ground to believe that the offence might result into a threat to life. A warrant would also be issued if the judge believes that information to be gathered concerns an actual threat to national security, national economic interest, and/or threat to national interest involving the state's international relations. A warrant shall be valid for only three months.

Reliable sources in intelligence told us yesterday that at the moment government has limited capacity to tap phones. Government, they added, uses equipment it procured from Libya in the early 1990s.

"What is done is to get a printout from the telecommunication companies whereby they can know that phone number X called Y," one source told us.

Even then, in most cases, security agencies are not in position to know exactly what X told Y. The new equipment is, therefore, expected to bridge this gap. According to various internet sites, there are a number of ways a telephone conversation can be monitored. For instance, Wikipedia says, one of the parties may record the conversation either on a tape or solid-state recording device, or on a computer running call recording software.

The recording, whether overt or covert, may be started manually, automatically by detecting sound on the line (VOX), or automatically whenever the phone is off the hook. As for mobile phones, especially the 3G type, the same website points out that they are harder to monitor because they use digitally-encoded and compressed transmission.

However, they can be tapped with the cooperation of the phone company, something the government has done before. For instance, in the aftermath of the 2010 July bombings, security agencies working with a major telecom company, were able to track and arrest three suspects - Idris Magondu, 42, Hussein Hassan Agad, 27, and Muhammed Aden Addow, 25 - thanks a phone that had been abandoned at a bar in Makindye.

Using the serial number of the phone, investigators were able to discern records related to calls made or received on the phone. That's how they got to know that the phone belonged or was at least one time frequently used by Hussein Hassan. The ministerial policy statement notes that regional threats of terrorism have since increased and so has subversion, espionage and politically motivated crime. Therefore, the equipment will help government curtail these vices.

Simon Mulongo, the Bubulo West lawmaker who doubles as Vice Chairman of Parliamentary committee on Internal Affairs, told The Observer that he supported government's decision to intercept communication provided this was not abused. On the price of the equipment, Mulongo said: "It is something that Parliament will have to crosscheck to establish whether the figure is reasonable."

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