December 18th 2017

Top Stories / National

Mass surveillance comes to Kenya, with all its potential abuses

The government has made previous attempts in the past to collect citizens’ communication in the guise of anti-terror legislation. The most recent attempt at such infringement was in the Security Laws (Amendment) Act of 2015 which the High Court declared unconstitutional.

By David Mutuadmutua@kenyafreepress.comSaturday, 18 Feb 2017 14:13 EAT

From Tuesday 21s February, the Kenya government seeks to be allowed to monitor all phone calls, text messages and mobile money transactions of cellphone users in the country. The Communications Authority of Kenya, which regulates the mobile telephony industry, has ordered the firms to allow it to tap their computers, a task to be undertaken by a company contracted by the agency.

Though the reason given for the tapping has been given as the need to track counterfeit devices, the massive surveillance goes too far for checking a problem that affects only less than 10 percent of mobile devices in Kenya, according to an Anti-Counterfeit Agency estimate. The wide tapping of communication of Kenyans will infringe on people's privacy, allowing government to open up people's lives at will.

The tapping is to be done by chips (links) installed at the mobile phone companies that will copy all information transacted on subscribers' phones, including the numbers called, duration of calls, and times, dates and locations of the subscriber.

It is not clear at the moment whether Safaricom Ltd, with approximately 26.6 million customers, Airtel Network Ltd (with 6.7 million subscribers), Telkom Kenya Ltd (with 2.9 million), Finserve Africa Ltd and Sema Mobile Services Ltd which have 2.2 million subscribers will accede to the demand.

Consumer protection organisations have challenged the legality of the order which raises concern about how the data so collected is to be handled. The Communications Authority, whose website was hacked in January alongside that of the National Environment Management Authority, can be easily breached.

The Consumer Federation of Kenya (COFEK) said government agencies, among them the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) and the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS), will also be allowed access to the information.

“This system will compromise consumer privacy and monitor calls and text messages while exposing consumers to higher billing and occasion poor quality services,” COFEK Secretary General Stephen Mutoro said.

"Should operators give in to the pressure, they should be ready for an avalanche of class action suits for compensation arising from leakage of private data,” said Mr Mutoro. The Kenyan constitution provides for fundamental freedoms and liberty for the citizens, and these can only be limited by legal authority.

The United Nations universal declaration of human rights also provides that “everyone has freedom and right of speech and opinion. The right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference, and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers".

The government has made previous attempts in the past to collect citizens’ communication in the guise of anti-terror legislation. The most recent attempt at such infringement was in the Security Laws (Amendment) Act of 2015 which the High Court declared unconstitutional.

However, the government has made considerable headway in promulgating surveillance systems in Nairobi and Mombasa without any legal resistance. In 2015, Safaricom implemented a Sh14.9 billion National Surveillance, Communication and Control System that links all major security agencies by connecting 195 police stations in Nairobi and Mombasa to 4G Internet.

The stations have the capacity to monitor high definition and ultra-high definition CCTV cameras across the two cities that allow for facial and movement recognition. The police has not shared details about the success of the Safaricom system, which some investigative journalists have claimed was never built as per the contract terms.

Experts have warned that Kenya is ill prepared for the effective handling of meta data to be collected by the company on the authority's behalf. It is feared the information could land in the wrong hands, used by unscrupulous law enforcement or private citizens who can obtain it on account of their jobs with the companies.

Even in countries such as the United States that runs the most robust surveillance systems, such data, however carefully guarded, has been used by law enforcement to target innocent citizens.

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