The recent revelation that the state is intercepting the metadata of at least 70 000 cell phones every year should send a shiver down your spine – and not just if you are a wanted suspect at large. Journalists, private investigators, politicians, political dissidents, civil society leaders – are some of the first that come to mind.
The Minister of State Security David Mahlobo recently remarked “we are monitoring everything”, referring to external forces he believes are working to overthrow the government. The recent developments and revelations however suggest nefarious foreign agents are not the true subject of surveillance.
It would not necessarily be irregular for any state to monitor 70 000 mobile phones, depending on the size of the population in question and the number of crooks residing in that country. But alarms go off when one compares the figures of surveillance applications through the Rica judge – the individual appointed to grant access as stipulated in legislation – and the metadata intercepted via a ‘legal loophole’.
According to the Right to Know Campaign – the organisation that made the revelations – less than 1000 warrants for interception were granted in 2014/15 by the Rica judge. These figures are made public while the bulk of interception is done through a process which has now only been revealed after a legal process to obtain the information (R2K filed a PAIA application to South Africa’s four major mobile operators). The state’s use of a legal ‘loophole’ as opposed to a somewhat more transparent process raises serious concerns over its intentions.
It is important to note that metadata does not include the content of the communication. It does however include the identities of those the specific individual in question communicates with, when such communications are made as well as the location of the device being monitored. The information might be significantly less sensitive, but still allows for tracking an individual’s movements, habits and persons he/she communicates with.
Apart from concerns raised by civil society, the United Nations and the former Rica judge herself over South Africa’s surveillance methods, the appointment of King Bhoyi Ngcobo as head of Crime Intelligence is not considered reassuring news. Ngcobo is reportedly President Jacob Zuma’s former chief protector and the DA claims he too lied about his qualifications. He also succeeds a man who did not have the necessary security clearance for the position he held. Coupled with that, reports have now surfaced that a ‘rogue unit’ in the police service might be targeting the police minister. City Press reports the unit includes members from CI and the Hawks while the department has called for an investigation into the claims.
Zuma is not one to shy away from breaking the rules to have his way, and questionable practices coupled with weak policies and close friends in decision-making positions could be catastrophic for South Africans’ right to privacy. Even more concerning is the fact that Zuma is not the only highly placed official who’s integrity has been questioned.
Stealing tax payers’ money for self-enrichment is a worse enough crime, but to abuse law enforcement resources brings into question the wellbeing of a democracy and true legitimacy of the state. It is not so much the act of surveillance, but the method used to obtain the information that is cause for concern, and until such a time of adequate transparency of South Africa’s intelligence community, this can be nothing more than speculation.