Digital surveillance: real and present danger

Telecommunications snooping has emerged as a fundamental threat to African journalists

Human rights activists protest against a ‘campaign of repression’ and in support of freedom of expression in Rabat, the capital of Morocco, January 2020 Photo: FADEL SENNA / AFP

Many journalists and researchers will remember the mid-2000s as halcyon days, when a panoply of digital research applications were generated for the public good. The possibility of sharing spreadsheets using cloud services, algorithms to reveal patterns of information about cartels, and hidden digital devices to detect criminality led to entire new publishing business models. Wikileaks appeared to be part of this wave of new ways of dealing with old problems. It was exciting. It felt like an information revolution: combined with the increasing digitisation and online accessibility of archives, the new research tools made more information available than ever before. But that sense of opening horizons has been fractured by a surge in digital abuse, particularly by state actors. Spying hardware, such as closed-circuit television cameras linked up to software, can identify passersby. Hardware companies can tap telephone conversations anywhere. And oppressive regimes, including many in Africa, are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire advanced spying knowhow from China and other countries. Security forces around the continent are using the freedom of the internet to track, and in some cases, attack journalists.

According to a December 2019 report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the total number of journalists incarcerated around the world is now near record highs. And the past 24 months have seen an acceleration in the number of reporters and editors arrested across Africa. The number of countries in Africa which used a blanket internet shutdown to stymie dissent and the exchange of information has also increased. For example shutdowns were reported in Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Mauritania, Sudan and Zimbabwe, according to the same report. The increasing use of digital methods to monitor journalists and prevent them from publishing critical reporting was the main theme for journalists from around the continent who attended the University of the Witwatersrand African Investigative Journalism Conference in Johannesburg in November 2019. The sessions that were most heavily attended dealt with the question of how to maintain personal security in a digital world, and with the threats to freedom of information and expression posed by increased state spying on the media.

Cybersecurity expert Melissa Hathaway, who headed up US President Barack Obama’s Cyberspace Policy Review had painted a bleak picture of the threat of digital surveillance to human rights at an earlier African Cyber Threat Conference hosted in Johannesburg in June 2019. She described the situation as “an immediate threat” and an “emergency” and called for the establishment of a global “counter-measures and mitigation process”, bringing together the best talent, regardless of nationality. In particular, the threat posed by military-grade cyber hacking is severe, according to Hathaway. This has been reflected at United Nations level with the General Assembly now developing norms and principles for responsible state behaviour in cyberspace. An open-ended working group has been established with an aim to report back to the UN General Assembly in September 2020 about those aims. But while the UN grapples with how to deal with the threats posed, cyber threats are growing quickly, Hathaway says. In Africa, the threat to the freedom of speech and information is directly linked to actions being taken by nation states, including Rwanda, Zambia and Uganda.

Some technology companies are directly implicated in the new digital oppression. Digital rights activist Dorothy Mukasa of Uganda’s Unwanted Witness civil society campaign has been directly affected by a regime that has spied on her activities. Mukasa was arrested after Ugandan police tracked her mobile phone. Telecommunications snooping has emerged as a fundamental threat to journalists in Africa. “The availability of unregulated exportation of spyware to weak democracies, especially in Africa, is a great risk to the safety of individual investigative journalists,” Musaka told Africa in Fact in an email interview. “The increasing use of pervasive surveillance technologies by both state and non-state actors is highly chilling to [a] free press,” she warned. Meanwhile, in places riven by war such as Somalia, this situation is worsened by agents of terror who use advanced methods to track and sometimes kill reporters. Journalist Abdiweli Ali Hassan was murdered in January this year, one of the first journalists to die in year and the 50th Somali journalist to die in the past decade, according to Mohamed Ibrahim Moalimuu, General of Federation Of Somali Journalists (FESOJ) spokesman.

The figure is also reported in a February 2020 online report by Reporters Without Borders. Hassan’s death will have a chilling effect on the media in the region, says Moalimuu. “There are groups [whose] intention is to silence the media in order to get an environment [where] they can freely [move] while committing atrocities,” he told Africa in Fact. “These include militant group Al Shabaab, government officers and freelance gangs.” Social media and other digital platforms have offered journalists effective ways to carry out research and interviews, as well as engage with society, but they also make it easy to identify and track them. The predominance of these easy-to-use apps has become a poisoned chalice, according to Hathaway. Israeli, American, Australian and Chinese merchants of digital surveillance technology are now imbedded inside African government operations in places like Zambia, Algeria, Kenya and Uganda, according to an August 2019 exposé in the Wall Street Journal. In investigations conducted by this reporter over the past 24 months, there is a growing list of defence-linked companies whose digital surveillance systems are being used to spy on journalists. One of the most aggressive currently is Huawei, although it denies any knowledge of formal spying activities within its operations.

Yet its name has appeared in a number of investigations, including the Wall Street Journal article mentioned earlier. Despite the company’s denials, indications that its products are being used to spy on journalists has a way of getting out. For example, Zambia’s ruling Patriotic Front admitted, on its Facebook page in April 2019, that its police force had managed to track down anti-government bloggers with the help of “Chinese experts at Huawei”. This inadvertent revelation was quickly taken down, but not before journalists took note of the boast. The technique used, according to the Wall Street Journal report, included hacking the journalists’ WhatsApp accounts. This reporter’s attempts in early December last year to reach Huawei’s South African CEO, Richard Yu, were unsuccessful. The company policy, according to a support team member contacted, was “not to communicate by phone” – which is ironic as the company manufactures and sells smartphones. But Huawei is only one of a lengthening list of telecommunications and technology savvy companies working closely with oppressive governments. Others include the Israeli NSO Group, also listed as Q Cyber Technologies.

In October last year, an article in Wired revealed that WhatsApp had instituted a lawsuit against the NSO Group. WhatsApp accused the tech company of “targeting 1,400 of its users, including at least 100 members of ‘civil society’ such as journalists and human-rights defenders” with malware that could circumvent the app’s encryption to steal users’ messages. In reports published in 2018 and 2019, Canada’s Citizen Lab identified the NSO Group as being behind a number of incidents involving spying on journalists. After an extensive investigation, WhatsApp argued that the NSO Group had developed its Pegasus app tracking software specifically for government agencies – and that it is effective on both iPhone and Android operating systems. The NSO Group did not respond to this reporter’s attempts to elicit a response. According to Hathaway, the increasing availability of sophisticated hacking and tracking systems is partly due to the commercialisation of digital technology, which has resulted in intensified competition between tech companies in the sector. “Companies strive to release products as quickly as possible,” says Hathaway. “They worry about security flaws after they have already been deployed.”

The paradigm of “field it fast, fix it later” – the dominant strategy employed by the technology industry – has led to ethics and governance issues, she continues. “If we are to significantly reduce cyber risk in the digital age, governments will need to step in and hold digital service providers and the manufacturers of ICT technology accountable for ensuring their products maintain adequate cyber safety standards.” Countries around the world, and in Africa in particular, are involved in a “technological arms race”, she adds. But this means that they are also becoming dependent on technologies that are increasingly complex and opaque – and thus vulnerable. “This leads to a higher risk of accidents, [as well as] unanticipated negative effects.” Like their counterparts around the world, African journalists are dependent on their smartphones for a range of professional activities, including filming high quality video, field reporting and managing contacts. However, the same smartphone is also the weak link in their personal security chain. In the future, they may need to return to old school journalistic techniques to maintain a higher level of confidentiality, particularly in countries where oppressive regimes dominate.

Desmond Latham is COO of frayintermedia. He has also previously been GCIS editor-in-chief, Business Day TV editor, Business Day/Financial Mail online editor and Mobile Active Digital, among others. He is a John S Knight Fellow of Stanford University.