Right2Know, R2K, a civil movement centred on freedom of expression and access to information, released statistics from various telecoms companies in the country that show how government is using a loophole in South Africa’s surveillance policies to access and spy on tens of thousands of citizens every year. The numbers showed that law enforcement agencies are spying on the communications of at least 70,000 phone numbers each year.
The investigation began in May 2017 when R2K asked MTN, Telkom, Vodacom and Cell C how many warrants they received in terms of section 205 of the Criminal Procedures Act, in 2015, 2016 and 2017. These requests aimed to understand how a legal loophole has allowed surveillance operations to take place using the Criminal Procedures Act, rather than the RICA law which is meant to be South Africa’s primary surveillance law. The RICA law stipulates that a special judge needs to approve any attempt to intercept an individual’s communication.
This loophole in surveillance laws, which falls under section 205 of the Criminal Procedures Act, allows law enforcement officials to bypass the RICA judge to get access to get your phone records. These record will reveal who you have communicated with, when, and where and according to this law any magistrate can issue a warrant that forces telecoms companies to give over a customer’s call records and metadata.
What Vodacom, MTN, Cell C and Telkom revealed
All four companies complied with R2K’s information requests. Their answers show that law enforcement get call records for a minimum of 70,960 phone numbers every year. These records, however, are incomplete as only Vodacom and Telkom could say how many phone numbers were contained in the warrants it received. It is estimated that the number could be as high as 194,820 phone numbers each year.
The stats broken down
In 2016 mobile operators got the following warrant requests for customers’ call records:
– MTN received 23,762 warrants
– Vodacom got 18,594 warrants
– Cell C got 6455 warrants
– Telkom got 1,271 warrants
Due to the fact that in some cases, the same warrant will be sent to several service providers, it is not possible to add these numbers together to get the total number of warrants issued across all service providers, as this would result in ‘double counting’ of some warrants.
According to R2K, the most recent statistics from the RICA judge’s office show that in 2014/2015, the RICA judge issued 760 warrants for interception. At a minimum, in the same year magistrates issued 25,808 warrants in terms of section 205 of the Criminal Procedures Act. This confirms that the vast majority of ‘authorised’ surveillance operations are happening outside of the RICA judge’s oversight, with no transparency or accountability.
R2K has subsequently called for urgent reforms in South Africa’s surveillance policies. They have suggested that the following needs to be changed:
- Call records must be given better protection
- An end to mass storage of customers’ data
- An end to SIM card registration
- Greater transparency
“This is no time for half measures and cosmetic reforms. Right2Know Campaign will not relent on challenging surveillance abuses. The people of South Africa can and will take back control of their privacy,” concluded the movement.