Govt’s phone spying edges closer

Government has moved within an inch of legally spying on citizens, after a plan to intercept phone calls was formally gazetted.

20 October 2021 | Technology

MATHIAS HAUFIKU and JEMIMA BEUKES







WINDHOEK

Government is pushing ahead with plans to get a legal mandate to intercept phone calls as well as compel mobile operators to obtain full personal and residential details of SIM card buyers.

This information is contained in a Government Gazette dated 15 March, in which information minister Peya Mushelenga listed several regulations that will be followed.

The move will see the Namibia Central Intelligence Service (NCIS) have its powers bolstered under Section 77 of the Communications Act 2009, which deals with regulations relating to interceptions.

According to the gazette, mobile service providers will be compelled to obtain information such as the telephone number or other identification of the customer concerned and the internet protocol (IP) address allocated to a customer.

Through the IP address, the authorities will be able to monitor the internet activity and search history of a person under surveillance.

They will now also have a legal mandate to intercept phone calls.

Mobile service providers will also be expected to keep information related to the date, time and duration of the telephone calls, be it multi-party conferencing, call diversion, abbreviated dialling and voice mail or intermediate numbers where the customer establishes conference calling or calls to link through services.

Whenever we call

Following the gazette, the Communications Regulatory of Namibian (CRAN) yesterday held a public hearing on the matter. Stakeholders have a week left to comment on the proposed conditions that will be imposed on service providers, who will also be expected to store information that will allow for the identification of base stations and cell sites.

“The service provider must store the information referred to in this regulation in such a manner that it is possible to retrieve that information in order to comply with the provisions of these regulations and any law authorising the interception of telecommunications or requiring the provision of information relating to telecommunications to another institution,” the gazette read.

The regulations will also compel service providers to have designated staff members authorised to provide information when the need arises.

“A service provider must … inform the authority which staff members and positions have been designated and provide the particulars of such staff members and positions…,” the document further reads.

Legally spying

The gazette indicated that members of the Namibian police or a staff member of the NCIS who requires any information can access it after submitting a request to a judge or magistrate seeking authorisation.

All they have to do to be granted such authorisation is to specify the person whose information is required and the reasons for that.

The spy agency and the police will, however, have to pay for information.

Service providers will be expected to charge N$400 per interception target for the establishment or set-up of a connection or process where duplicate signals or data packets are routed or sent to an interception centre or other institution.

They will also have to fork out N$30 per interception target for every month or part thereof for a connection or process, N$30 for every request for information relating to telecommunications and N$4 per page if the information is provided in printed form.

If the service provider is required to provide assistance outside normal working hours, it must be compensated an additional N$250 per interception target or request, the gazette read.

“If the telecommunications service provider is already providing a service to a customer on the date of commencement of these regulations, the telecommunications service provider must obtain the information from each customer within 12 months from the date of commencement of these regulations.

If customer information has not been provided within the period, the service must be suspended for a period of three months, the gazette stated.

Thin line

Political analyst Linda Baumann said there is a very thin line between gathering data and spying on people.

“Yes, it is important to register data, but it is also important to know where it is going. There has been a general lack of transparency and people have no idea where their information is going. This is just plain wrong. How do you fine people for not registering their data?

“Where do you draw the line? Imagine a teenager with no intimidation but they have a SIM card? How do you fine them? What about those people who have no identification documents? Are you going to deny them access to a SIM card?”

She said there needs to be a national dialogue on the issue of data collection and what government plans to do with people’s information.

“The intelligence is bound to take advantage of this opportunity,” she said.

Serious concern

Namibia Media Trust executive director Zoé Titus agreed that data registration is important in light of increasing cybercrimes, but said it may open the door to surveillance.

“What one would like to see is that this runs parallel with a data protection act, because citizens’ right to privacy is not adequately protected.

“Apart from the fact that there may be undue surveillance and invasion of privacy in context of a journalist, I am even more concerned about the safety of whistle-blowers, especially in view of the fact that our Whistle-Blower Protection Act and Witness Protection Act are not operational. This is a serious concern.”

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