SA approves eavesdropping Bill

Government spokesperson Joel Netshitenzhe said cabinet had approved the Regulation of Interception of Comunications and Provision of Communication Related Information Amendment Bill two weeks ago, and the proposed legislation was now set to go before parliament. The bill seeks to regulate “lawful” interception of communications conducted via mobile phones and other electronic mediums and will require mobile network operators to make wholesale changes to their systems. Apart from allowing the government to lawfully snoop on electronic communications, the legislation will also compel cell-phone network operators to install new equipment making it possible for law enforcement officials to listen in on calls. But in spite of the reported positive objectives of the bill in fighting organised crime, freedom of expression advocates believe the law is a major infringement on the right to freedom of expression and privacy. The Free Market Foundation said recently the bill would be a failure, as it curtailed citizens’ rights to privacy. Free Market Foundation Director Eustace Davie said the government should have found other means through which it would counter organised crime. “You cannot solve crime by passing legislation that takes away people’s freedoms and privacy. “Government should spend more money fighting crime rather than co-opting the private sector to do policing on its behalf,” Davie said. Law enforcement officials have said the lack of such legislation was hindering efforts at clamping down on high crime activities in South Africa, which is believed to have one of the highest crime rates in the world. They believe the bulk of cash-in-transit heists are made by criminal syndicates using mobile and electronic communications that could not be traced. In an effort to trace the use of mobile and electronic communications, the proposed legislation makes provision for network operators to record the personal details of anyone buying a ‘pre-paid’ SIM-card or handset package. The new regulations are understood to stipulate that anyone selling or giving away a cell-phone or SIM card will have to make and keep a record of the recipient’s name and contact details, as well as a copy of their identity documents. In anticipation of the legislation being passed into law, mobile network operators in the country have reportedly already begun making arrangements for the smooth transition to the new system. Network operators Cell C and Vodacom say they have been working closely with the department of justice and are in the process of developing registration forms to enable them to comply with the new requirements. They say they have also begun making preparations to install new equipment that would allow law enforcement officials to eavesdrop on calls if there is a need for them to do so. Observers also say the timing of cabinet’s decision is interesting, as there have been a number of cases in which allegations of interceptions have raised concerns. Controversy has surrounded revelations of illegal wiretapping of phones as part of surveillance work by the National Intelligence Agency (NIA). The organisation has also been implicated in the ‘hoax e-mail’ saga involving falsely generated emails plotting the ouster of former deputy president Jacob Zuma. Former NIA director general Billy Masetlha was dismissed from his post due to his involvement in the saga, along with deputy director general Gibson Njenje, counter-intelligence chief Bob Mhlanga and cyber expert Funi Madlala. The four were also rapped for using the National Communications Centre (NCC) in illegal attempts to intercept phone calls. The original Act became law in 2003, and made personal data collected from customers available to law enforcement upon request. Rights groups in Zimbabwe have also slammed government attempts at effecting a similar law that would allow state law enforcement agents to eavesdrop on private conversations and monitor faxes and emails. The Zimbabwean government has reportedly drafted the Interception of Communications Bill that will set up a centre to “monitor and intercept certain communications” from a variety of sources. Under the proposed law, telecommunication service providers will also be compelled to install devices to enable interception of phone conversations, faxes and emails. Human rights lawyer Chris Mhike condemned the bill, saying it was “unconstitutional and unreasonable” and would amount to a violation of freedom of expression. Internet service providers have also said they will play a huge role in criticising the bill and making sure it will not be passed into law. The Zimbabwe government says the proposed bill is important for national security.

May 2006
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