21 September 2017

South Africa: Surveillance Stats Reveal Spooks' Cell Phone Bonanza

press release

Where were you on this day exactly five years ago? Did you make any phone calls? Send any text messages? And how would you feel if you knew MTN, Vodacom, or whichever network provider you use, still has logs of who you contacted that day, how long you spoke, and where each of you was when the conversation happened? And of every phone call or text message you've made or received since?

They probably do. RICA, South Africa's main surveillance law, forces MTN, Vodacom, Cell C and Telkom to store logs of all their customers' "metadata" for three to five years.

That doesn't include content - what's said over the phone or in a text message - but it does include information such as who you communicated with, when, where and for how long. This "metadata" is a spook's bread and butter.

This week we learned that government agencies are accessing this information tens of thousands of times a year. According to statistics compiled by the Right2Know Campaign, mobile network operators are handing over customer communications information for at least 70000 phones every year. The real number is likely far higher.

If you're not scared yet, keep reading. While RICA says police and intelligence agencies need permission from a special judge if they want to listen to the content of your communication, the law gives your sensitive metadata far less protection.

Using section 205 of the Criminal Procedures Act, law enforcement officials can bypass the RICA judge to access all a cellphone user's metadata logs. Any magistrate can issue such a warrant at the request of government agencies.

You may think this information is less sensitive than the content of your communication, but this metadata can reveal as much, if not more, about one's contacts, interests and habits than what a person actually says over the phone or in a text message.

In several cases we have tracked, intelligence officials lied to judges to "trick" them into signing warrants to spy on the communication of journalists - judges are misled to think the warrants are for hardened criminals.

We asked MTN, Telkom, Vodacom and Cell C how many warrants they were getting for customer call records. The answers were staggering.

Last year, MTN received 23762 warrants for customer call records; Vodacom 18594; Cell C 6455 and Telkom 1271.

Knowing that a warrant might demand the records of several people, we also asked how many phone numbers were snooped on in total.

MTN and Cell C said they didn't keep track of that information. Vodacom and Telkom said they handed over records for 70960 phone numbers every year.

What's scary about this? Firstly, it shows the vast majority of surveillance operations are happening outside of the RICA judge's oversight, at the lowest levels of our court system. The most recent statistics show the RICA judge signed about 760 warrants for interception in one year. It seems magistrates are signing that number of surveillance warrants every week.

As far as we can see, nobody in government or the justice system is keeping central oversight on the use of this one surveillance loophole. (Which is why we pulled the stats together ourselves.)

Secondly, everyone of us must now sit and wonder - has my cellphone provider ever snitched on me? If they have, you'll probably never know.

But it does matter because our metadata reveals private information that we may want to keep private.

The metadata of a Daily Dispatch journalist could reveal which officials in Buffalo City provide tips and insights that bring corruption to the public's eye. The metadata of a politician may not only reveal which "faction" they're in, but also map out nearly all the others in that faction.

Now ask yourself - what does your metadata say about you? Maybe you think you have nothing to hide. But think back again to what you were doing this day, five years ago. And then on all the days since then.

Of course, you can't recall every detail of who you've talked to and met with. Whether you've been called by debt collectors, or a doctor or a therapist. Where you slept every night, and where you went during the days. But your metadata does remember.

Let's fix these laws and bring government spies under control.

This opinion piece by R2K's Murray Hunter appeared in The Daily Dispatch on 25 August 2017. Find out more these surveillance statistics here.

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