No licence to spy

12 June 2019 | Justice

Evidence that the Namibian government has acquired top-notch surveillance equipment on the international market over the past decade has raised concern that it is being illegally deployed to spy on citizens in the absence of laws that would guard against abuse.

“It seems clear that Namibia already has formidable and sophisticated communications surveillance capabilities,” states a research paper released yesterday by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), titled 'Spying on Speech'.

Based on research conducted since 2017 by IPPR research associate Frederico Links, the paper observes that “surveillance overreach and abuse appear to be realities in Namibia”.

This is based on the fact the government has “been very active in the surveillance technology market as a buyer or potential buyer of all sorts of surveillance tech” between 2009 and 2019.

Numerous sections dealing with the publicly available evidence of these purchases and enquiries into the technology are included in the paper. Links underlines that while surveillance is undeniably a necessity to some extent for any government to tackle crime and other threats, abuse is bound to be rife when there are no legal frameworks to keep the spies in check.

The legal framework applicable in Namibia is part six of the Communications Act of 2009, which provides for the interception of telecommunications and which to date has not been put into force.

This has been an issue that international human rights organisations queried over the course of a number of years, in the face of continued denials from the government that interceptions are taking place.

In 2015, Privacy International made a submission to the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC), addressing part six of the Act and warning that the absence of the regulations means there is neither judicial authorisation required to conduct surveillance, nor any oversight.





Although there are indications the regulations could be finalised this year, the paper concludes there are “credible indications” the Namibia Central Intelligence Service (NCIS) is conducting surveillance.



No checks

Links writes that “in circumstances where regulatory and oversight mechanisms are weak or lacking, as appears to be the case in Namibia, surveillance capabilities can very easily be abused.”

Moreover, the paper argues that the security and intelligence apparatus of the Namibian state “seems to operate with a sense of impunity and non-accountability”.

In a section titled 'Abuse of Power and Secrecy', it is underlined that Namibia's security and intelligence governance culture is characterised by “secrecy, silence and impunity”.



Market evidence

Evidence gathered by Links shows that while the Namibian government was steadfastly denying that interceptions of telecommunications were taking place, publicly available information show state actors were buying sophisticated surveillance equipment on the international market.

“Should we take this to mean that the Namibian government is stockpiling these technologies for when eventually part six is to be gazetted and comes into force? Or can this lead us to infer that actually these technologies are being used, because we all know technology becomes obsolete very quickly,” he asked at the launch yesterday.

Although Links was able to trace the government's purchase of surveillance technology since 2008 from some countries, he warned that not all governments are transparent about the sales or manufacturing of spy equipment.

Links highlighted that in the absence of terrorism or other credible threats to national security in Namibia, the question is what is being monitored and why.

“You get the sense there is a fear of outspokenness, or legitimate political expression, and the challenge to existing elite power and to a sense of entitlement to rule,” he said.



JANA-MARI SMITH

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