By Bonface Nyangla
In March 2017,Wikileaks dumped thousands of documents detailing the American CIA’s disturbing (but pretty awesome if you’re a geek) hacking capabilities. Inter alia, a programme called Weeping Angel that can turn your Samsung television into a peephole in your living room, via a ‘fake-off’ facility which fools you into believing that you’ve switched off your telly – when you have not!
Have no doubt you are, even today, being spied on.Former CIA contractor Edward Snowden revealed that as of 2014, Kenyans were subject to American surveillance programmes (Mystic / Somalget / Duskpallet) which were constantly scooping up all Kenyan cellphone Metadata – for example when and who you call, text and send Mpesa – with content potential “at a later date.”
During the single party days, a paranoid KANU government engaged in clumsy and widespread wiretapping. Kenyans then developed a keen awareness that they were being watched and listened to, and innovated. Kenyans today are largely oblivious to the risks of communication.
We learned late last year that in 2009, the UK’s, GCHQ, listened in to our former President Kibaki, Raila Odinga and even Chris Kirubi; proof I suppose that all are at risk of being spied upon.
Only the snoopers or the willfully ignorant will claim to be unaware of the extent to which Kenyan authorities too have a tendency to engage in domestic data harvesting exercises under the rubric of Counter Terrorism and Counter Narcotics law enforcement. On paper, Kenyan law requires such to be supported by court warrants, but we know that’s not always the case.
In Febraury, the Director General of the Communications Authority, Francis Wangusi tried to order mobile network providers (Telcos) to place monitoring devices on their backbones to detect fake phones in use; but he claims not to spy on Kenyans.
If we don’t jealously guard our right to privacy we most definitely will suffer invasions of privacy by state and even non-state actors. This is not an idle issue. It is the tendency of government officials around the world – since time immemorial (so please Kenyan officials don’t take this personally) – to want to know what’s going on up to your bedrooms.
George Orwell’s 1984 predicted the rise of a Big Brother state in which each citizen is constantly watched through ubiquitous television screens and even thought is policed.
By explicit constitutional provisions Kenyans have since independence had a right to privacy of correspondence, including when using telecommunication devices such as mobile phones. But Kenyans must also be aware that if they had a choice, some in officialdom would seek to do away with our Constitutional right to privacy and freedom from interference with our correspondence.
And yet, I can see that I and many Kenyans who should have done more to stop its rise have allowed a creeping surveillance state to appear ostensibly to protect us from terrorists and other bad people. Thus I am filmed without being asked for permission each and every day on roads and as I enter buildings across Kenya.
Kenyans accept CCTV without question, mostly on the dubious doctrine that only the guilty or criminal would object to security cameras. But a line must be drawn somewhere, and Mr. Wangusi has given us an opportunity to debate where the line really is.
Being ordered to bug mobile phone subscribers is a global issue. Vodafone (the UK Telco that is controlling owner of our Safaricom) published a report in 2014 revealing the existence, in 29 of the countries in which it operates, of governmental demands for direct access (to subscribers’ metadata and actual content) and attempts at warrantless search and embedding of intelligence agents. In Kenya, it reported that only a technical limitation prevented complete direct access – probably that back then a very large number of subscribers had unregistered phone lines.
The Communication Authority’s latest intervention has generated a groundswell of opposition, but I fear that we cannot see the forest for the trees. We are already under the constant eye of Big Brother, many of us unwittingly, as we sign on to every mobile phone application that comes our way. What Kenyans think of positively as our national tendency towards quick uptake of technology may actually be our Trojan horse.
The tragedy of the Communications Authority’s misunderstanding of its real role as regulator of the telecommunications industry is that its Director General has no idea that it is actually his job to blow the whistle on unlawful eavesdropping whether by the state or others. Indeed it is his job to be a driving force in the development of a comprehensive data protection legal regime.
Big Brother’s watching, we must watch him back!