Ever wonder how the South African State Security Agency (SSA) and other intelligence gathering bodies compare to the well known mass surveillance practices adopted by the likes of America’s NSA and Britain’s GCHQ? Us too, because most of what the security services do in this country is even more secret than their international colleagues and has had privacy activists worried for many years.
In an attempt to shed some light onto the activities of our intelligence agencies this morning, the Right2Know Campaign unveiled its Big Brother EXPOSED report, a document that relays stories of activists and community leaders who have been monitored and “harassed” online and off by those suspected of working for SSA and its ilk.
Due to the shortage of official figures and information about call interceptions and undercover work, the report is largely based on case studies and anecdotal evidence gathered by R2K researchers over the last year. The report also draws on details of some of the leaked ‘Spy Cables‘ which have not been covered by the media.
“We have to arm ourselves to understand why it [spying and monitoring of people involved in protest] is happening. We don’t think it is limited to the people we interviewed and we expect more people to come forward. The spy cables has also given us some insight into the abuses being committed,” said R2K’s Murray Hunter during a media briefing in Johannesburg.
The organisation claims that the issue of monitoring came to the attention of R2K after the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) announced that national office bearers were going to lay a complaint with the Inspector General of Intelligence after “intelligence officials tried to approach several Numsa members and United Front activists to get information on their activities.”
The 59-page report documents tales of spying, following and intelligence gathering but it also raises a number of questions after each story is told.
In Chapter 12 it asks why crime intelligence officers are present at many meetings between protest organisers and police in the lead up to protest action.
“Since these meetings are logistical in nature, it is not clear why Crime Intelligence officials should be present at all. The SAPS policy is silent on whether they should be involved in these meetings,” the report details.
But the report doesn’t only deal with political activists and the government’s apparent need to spy on them, but it also highlights a cyberattack against University of Johannesburg’s research team on protests.
The team has interviewed over 100 people across the country involved in protests and collected a database of more than 2 000 media reports of protest from the last 10 years.
After a media briefing in February last year, three members of the research team had their properties broken into, and two had their laptops stolen. A number of them also experienced break-ins at their place of work.
“And then, in what appears to be a sophisticated cyberattack, someone hacked into the Dropbox folder where the researchers stored their interviews with protesters, effectively stealing the information,” R2K said in the report.
While it is not pointing any fingers on the incident just yet, R2K adds that it can only speculate about was behind these events. Based on the sophisticated methods, and the potential value of the researchers’ database of information on protest and protesters, one of the researchers says she thinks “it has got to be state intelligence or someone working with them”.
The report also raised the question of whether mobile communications of certain individuals are being monitored without their knowledge or permission. R2K says that everybody is vulnerable to mobile phone bugging, but if you have ever heard clicking, beeping echoes or voice on the line, it is unlikely that you are being monitored.
“Most electronic surveillance is almost impossible to detect. if it were happening, you would probably never know about it.”
Telephone conversations can only be monitored if a judge has granted an order to do so, but R2K says that there have been instances where authorities have circumvented such orders – and pints the finger at Rica, the law that makes it compulsory for everyone in South Africa to register their cellphone number.
“Rica’s big loophole is that it only regulates ‘domestic’ signals, and not ‘foreign’ signals. Foreign signals can mean any communications that passes either into or out of South Africa – including a lot of internet traffic. It has long been suspected that this kind of surveillance is sometimes undertaken without a judge’s permission,” the report said.
Numsa’s Karl Cloete added that he finds it rather ironic that we celebrated Freedom Day yesterday, yet the report details just how restricted society for certain people are.
“We trust it (this report) will serve as a platform to expose 21 years of so-called democracy. It is ironic that we would have celebrated Freedom Day when in fact our freedoms are not so free,” he said during the media briefing.
A number of the stories relayed in the report are form members who are involved with Numsa in some form or another, and Cloete explained that Numsa isn’t making the claims of spying lightly.
“We joined the R2K for this report and we need to take our democracy back. We fought long and hard for the freedom to associate, and we fought long to be able to express ourselves,” he said.
Murray concluded the media briefing by saying surveillance of this kind needs to be stop as its the type of violence that doesn’t leave a bruise.
Want to find out more? You can read the full report at the R2K website here.