Mass surveillance practices are creepy, actually
Duncan’s book Stopping the Spies asks some important questions like: are South African citizens being spied on by the state? Is state surveillance used for the democratic purpose of making people safer, or is it being used for the repressive purpose of social control? And is the state becoming like a one-way mirror, where it can see more of what its citizens do and say, while citizens see less and less of what the state does?
Edward Snowden’s 2011 revelation of massive state surveillance conducted by the United States government had drastic global impact on the public’s awareness of how our personal information is accessed and used by the state.
The Head of the Journalism Department at the University of Johannesburg, Professor Jane Duncan, recently published a book titled Stopping the Spies, which shines light on how the privacy rights of citizens are infringed upon by agencies like the Crime Intelligence Division (CID) and the State Security Agency (SSA) under the pretence of ensuring the public’s safety.
State surveillance has become a global trend from the Middle East to Europe, China and the United States, mass surveillance technology is spreading quickly and quietly. The examples are numerous and growing. Egypt’s parliament recently passed a controversial media law, which states that all social media accounts with over 5 000 followers will be treated as media entities and be strictly monitored. In a bid to smother dissent, China is using state of the art surveillance technology to spy on its citizens
Last year, Al Jazeera’s Spy Merchant documentary revealed eerie mass surveillance practices, and how easy it is to get covert electronic communication interceptors like International Mobile Subscriber Identity-catchers—capable of intercepting anyone’s digital communication within a considerable radius of kilometers. The technology is readily available on the black market.
Duncan’s book Stopping the Spies asks some important questions like: are South Africa’s citizens being spied on by the state? Is state surveillance used for the democratic purpose of making people safer, or is it being used for the repressive purpose of social control? And is the state becoming like a one-way mirror, where it can see more of what its citizens do and say, while citizens see less and less of what the state does? Duncan says that there are a number of laws and technologies that work hand in glove to infringe on the privacy rights of citizens. The Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act (RICA) in South Africa is one of these many laws.
Research has been done by the advocacy group Right2Know (R2K) Campaign which shows that RICA, which forces citizens to part with sensitive information like physical addresses, identity numbers and phone numbers in order to get a working cell phone sim card, fails to prevent crime, but the collection of information continues all the same. This includes collection of information from CCTV cameras available in public places like parking lots which pick up facial recognition and number plate recognition, which allows for better tracking of the movements of ordinary people in public spaces.
Right2Know got statistics from MTN, Vodacom, Cell C and Telkom which suggested that law enforcement agencies send these mobile networks about 25,000-50,000 ‘section 205’ warrants every year, as opposed to 500 or 600 ‘RICA’ warrants.
As a result, this has enabled the state to access endless amounts of metadata to spy on its citizens and leftists’ voices like unionists and activists through the exploitation of certain loopholes in legislations such as Section 205 of the Criminal Procedure Act. Section 205 of the Act enables any state law enforcement officials to obtain call records of citizens. The records reveal who one has spoken to, where and when the communication took place.
The spies access this information through warrants granted to them by magistrates, which forces telecommunications companies to part with information on the ‘person of interest’. Often, journalists are placed at risk of having their communication intercepted.
Stopping the Spies gives life to the latest Right2Know report entitled Spooked: Surveillance of journalists in SA. The report reveals that SSA tapped phone calls of Sam Sole, from the investigative journalism group Amabhungane, for at least six months when he was investigating former president Jacob Zuma. The list of journalists who have been spied on is long and concerning.
Under heavy state surveillance, the repression of journalists to effectively speak truth to power is likely to increase because “journalists and ordinary people are treated the same,” says Duncan. However, she adds that “this shouldn’t be the case because journalists have a professional duty to protect their sources.”
Mass surveillance practices are murky and lack transparency. RICA does not require users to be notified once they are being spied on, and often, even the communication of ordinary citizens is intercepted. “There is so much state spying taking place that we are not really paying attention to,” says Prof. Duncan.
Right2Know organiser Thami Nkosi says that the justification for state surveillance is “safety for citizens as it is used in other countries to avert terrorist attacks” but there are also consequences. “State surveillance is a threat to civil liberties and an even greater threat to democracy,” she says.
If terror-related attacks continue to occur in places like Europe, where well-equipped surveillance technologies are the norm, one could end up wondering whether such tools really are being used for the democratic purpose of making sure that people are safer, or whether this technology is being used for the purpose of social control, and spying on those who pose a political threat to the interests of ruling parties. Duncan says that with the increase in surveillance capacities there has also been an increase in organised crime. “I tend to ask the questions how and why that occurs,” Duncan says.
Prof Duncan challenges members of civil society to be concerned about and to act on the ever-expanding surveillance capacities of the South African state. “I think that [this argument] is lulling us as citizens into a false sense of security about giving the most sensitive part of ourselves into the state. That is creepy, actually,” she says.
Jane Duncan is a professor in the Department of Journalism, Film and Television, at the University of Johannesburg. Before that, she held a chair in Media and the Information Society at Rhodes University, and was the Executive Director of the Freedom of Expression Institute. She is author of The Rise of the Securocrats: The Case of South Africa (2014) and Protest Nation: The Right to Protest in South Africa (2016).
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