SOUTH Africa’s intelligence operatives often appear hopelessly inept. But new technologies are empowering even the most incompetent spooks. Revelations by the WikiLeaks "Spy Files" project and whistle-blower Edward Snowden point to a large escalation in citizen surveillance.
In South Africa, crime intelligence and private investigators routinely circumvent the Regulation of Interception of Communications Act to access individual citizens’ e-mails and phone calls. Targets can simply be added to legitimate surveillance projects. Even more concerning is the likelihood that there is already systematic blanket surveillance by the state.
The Citizen Lab at Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs recently revealed that FinSpy software is hosted by one or more South African computers, almost certainly within the government. FinSpy inserts "trojans" onto target computers and cellphones, allowing remote surveillance of keystrokes, passwords, text messages, e-mails and voice data. It can even turn a cellphone into a microphone to eavesdrop on private conversations (which explains some politicians’ unnerving habit of removing the batteries from their phones).
Huawei Technologies, the world’s second-biggest telecommunications company, is a recent investor in South Africa. According to one assessment in Foreign Affairs magazine, Huawei is a Chinese intelligence agency "masquerading as a tech business". Using software developed for domestic repression, it could allegedly supply passive surveillance capability to a friendly ruling party.
A much smaller local company, VASTech, has been a focus of WikiLeaks’ attention. The Wall Street Journal revealed in 2011 that the Stellenbosch-based firm’s systems helped the Gadaffi regime monitor millions of mobile and landline calls. This technology was also reportedly sold to the Mubarak state.
WikiLeaks-hosted company documents show that VASTech’s Zebra system can monitor 20-million voice channels simultaneously. Such blanket interception is complemented by archiving power that allows agents to "backtrack and retrieve all the communications of suspects prior to an incident". Network analysis permits the identification of "key relationships between stakeholders" and lays bare "the structure and operation of syndicate networks".
Even anonymous cellphones are no defence against Zebra: it uses "speaker identification" technology to "reveal unknown numbers and new mobile devices used by targets".
VASTech describes surveillance targets as "criminals and enemies of the public". But it is officials in state agencies, and not software suppliers, who decide how technology is used. Given that the state’s national interception centre probably possesses such instruments, can citizens be confident that intrastate oversight mechanisms are effective?
Drug-smuggling, xenophobia, illicit commerce, and human trafficking, among many other matters, are routinely touted as "threats to national security". This could license the surveillance of a vast swathe of commercial entities and citizens.
Surveillance systems are excellent instruments for the mapping of internal political party factions. It is possible to take a player in national, provincial or local politics, reconstruct his "collaboration networks", and eavesdrop on his archived conversations. There is nothing to prevent such technology being used against recalcitrant trade unionists — especially when, as State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele has observed, so much industrial action is "illegal".
The KwaZulu-Natal police’s Lt-Gen Solomon Makgale made the insightful observation this week that service delivery protesters are also criminals. A protest, he noted, "stops being a protest when a crime is committed … if you are impeding the flow of traffic, then obviously you’ll be in conflict with the law".
South Africa is experiencing a rapid expansion in the reach and potential power of state surveillance. It is unclear how to prevent what may become an equally rapid rise in the number of citizens defined by state agencies as "enemies of the public".
• Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town.
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