If you’ve popped by the site this morning (and if you’re reading this, I’m going to assume you have) you’ll notice that we’ve stuck a great big banner across the bottom half of your screen. Don’t worry, it’s not permanent and it is dismissable if you click on the big ‘X’ in the corner.
The reason it’s there is that we’re happy to be supporting the international day of protest, The Day We Fight Back. Which is today, obviously. Along with some 5,000 or so other sites, including big names like BoingBoing and reddit, we want tohighlight the important issues around electronic communications and who’s spying on who throughout the day.
We’re not alone. Tumblr, the Free Software Foundation, DuckDuckGo, Greenpeace, the EFF, the Mozilla Foundation, ThoughtWorks and more have all added their names to the protest, which coincides with the second anniversary of the successful action against SOPA and PIPI legislation in the US.
Here at htxt.africa we’re firm believers of the power of the internet to do good. One of the main reasons we set up this site is to show off how great technology is, and highlight some of the incredible things people are doing with it as it becomes more and more affordable in South Africa. Across the rest of the continent, technology has the power to alleviate suffering, poverty and political disenfranchisement. We want to show that just because you love the serious side of where tech is taking us doesn’t mean you can’t also enjoy all the cool stuff that comes with it – the gadgets, the games, the moon-rocket-in-your-pocket wonder of futuristic calculating machines we call phones.
But we also believe that all these great things shouldn’t come at the cost of our right to privacy and with a police state attached. It’s hard, in a country where the fear of crime is so high, to explain why it’s not always the best idea to give the police unlimited powers to access your internet records – but aside from the principle that an expectation of privacy underpins freedom, it’s also true that states and law enforcement agencies abuse powers that citizens grant them.
Take, for example, one of the key discoveries of the Snowden file leaks from the National Security Agency in the US: the fact that the agency was monitoring the phone of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. In previous decades, this would have been considered close to an act of war by a mature sovereign state such as Germany, and certainly not something you should do to your allies. Yet when we discover that the UK’s GCHQ spy centre is listening in on South African diplomats in the same way, at important trade summits where sensitive commercial information is being discussed, we do nothing.
And that’s just the wrongness of inter-governmental communications. If diplomats and presidents have no reasonable expectation that they can send an email to their loved ones without it being intercepted, what hope for the rest of us?
Part of the problem, here in South Africa, is that we have very little understanding of exactly what our security services are up to. We know that they’re ordering spy satellites, we know that they’re putting cameras on the highways. We know that they insist on us producing ID cards at every given opportunity and authenticating our name, address and bank records before we’re allowed to make a phone call. We know that we’re still waiting for the Protection of Personal Information act (POPI) to enshrine some of our rights to privacy in law, but we are subject to the Regulation and Interception of Communications Act (RICA) which gives (section 7):
Any law enforcement officer may…intercept any communication or may orally request a telecommunications service provider to route duplicate signals of indirect communications… to the interception centre designated within.
The really worrying part of RICA is that law enforcement can do this with impunity. The same clause explicitly states that providing an officer is really sure their request is important and urgent, they can force telecoms companies to hand over information without troubling a judge for a court order. You know, really sure.
The act goes on, requiring ISPs to store traffic, IP allocation and location data for up to five years (although the ISPs fought back against this one with some success).
The point, though, is that while The Day We Fight Back is being led primarily by US organisations, and we know a great deal about what happens in the UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, we don’t really know much about what happens here. The surveillance infrastructure is there, but how often is it used, and why? When a minister refuses to answer questions about an R115 million spy project gone wrong, what else are they hiding?
As the EFF’s International Director Danny O’Brien puts it in an interview we’ll be publishing later today:
A lot of African countries leapfrogged a lot of the world when they skipped landline communications and went straight to mobile phones, there’s going to be this same moment again where people will be getting the majority of their media and internet consumption through mobile before other countries… We at the EFF are really concerned about this because the mobile phone internet, intermediated by mobile phone companies, is a far more invasive and risky place than the traditional internet… Most mobile phone companies have a very strong and intimate relationship with the local government. Google gives less of a hoot about what goes on in the South African government unless the South African government decides to go through an Iranian or Chinese path and actually blog Google… I don’t know the South African telecoms firms by name, but I can guess that one of them used to be the state-owned telecom provider and the others have to have a spectrum licence agreement with the government
To answer some of these questions, Vinayak Bhardwaj will be giving a talk in central Johannesburg tonight, along with Quintis Venter of ThoughtWorks and htxt.africa’s own legal eagle, Paul Jacobson. Full details are here, hope to see you there.
Throughout today we’ll also be posting more stories related to the subject of online privacy and how surveillance across Africa affects journalists, activists and citizens across the continent. Keep checking back for more.
[Image – Doorway of the International Spy Museum, New York, cc by Tony Fischer Photography]