Capping their session this week, Parliament passed an amendment to a bill, seeking to authorise the tapping of telephones and other private communication for security purposes.
Presenting the final draft to Parliament, the chairman of the parliamentary committee on Human Rights, Unity and Reconciliation and Fight Against Genocide, MP Francois Byabarumwanzi, said his committee had benchmarked the best practices, particularly from Commonwealth countries.
The law designates the army, police and intelligence services as the only state organs allowed to tap into private communications upon authorisation from a prosecutor through an interception warrant.
"Interception of communications is considered lawful where it is done in the interest of public security and in accordance with this law," article 3 of the amended law reads.
However, due to the urgency of public security interests the prosecutor may issue such a warrant verbally but a written warrant must be completed in a period not exceeding twenty-four (24) hours.
Under the amended law all communication service providers shall ensure that systems are technically capable of supporting interceptions at all times upon request by the competent organ, in accordance with the provisions of this law.
"The law provides for inspectors in charge of monitoring authorised persons to ensure that they intercept communication, in accordance with the law, the Minister of Internal Security, Musa Fazil Harerimana explained yesterday, while allaying fears that the bill would lead to encroachment on people's privacy.
"It will be criminal for one to intercept one's private conversation; this legislation is meant to protect subscribers," Harerimana said.
He explained that phone tapping will be handled by National Security Services, army, prosecution and police.
"The law has been amended to create exceptions and to ensure that those who intercept communications are monitored as well."
He said other countries enacted the law long ago and that Rwanda was late.
"Some of the Commonwealth countries have had interception laws since 1979," he said.
The bill shall now be sent to the Senate for further deliberations and scrutiny.
The tapping of telephones and other private communication for security purposes, will provide 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.
Even then, in most cases, security agencies are not in position to know exactly what X told Y until certain equipment is in place. Anyone can be tapped with the cooperation of the phone company.
Minister Harerimana said the government is set to purchase equipment and establish systems for the interception of communication and registration of simcards.
"We will not request the practicing communication operators to buy new equipments, the government will buy that carrier equipment that will be able to intercept any communication in case state security is at stake," the minister said.
How it works
There are a number of ways a telephone conversation can be monitored, according to various internet sites.
According to Wikipedia, 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 says 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.
With help of the serial number of the phone, investigators are able to discern records related to calls made or received on the phone. That's how they discover who owned or frequently used the phone.
Experts say regional threats of terrorism have since increased and so has subversion, espionage and politically motivated crime.