SA government questioned over R3.5m investment in spy firm

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Human rights organisation Privacy International (PI) has written to the South African government to ask why the Department of Trade and Industry used R3 563 506.45 of public money to fund the development of a telecoms surveillance tool capable of capturing up to 40 million minutes of voice calls a month, which was deployed by the  Libyan regime under Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

According to PI, the SA government gave surveillance firm VASTech money from its Support Program for Industrial Innovation (SPII) on at least two occassions between 2008 and 2010. VASTech’s flagship product, Zebra, is a system for bulk intercepts of voice calls, fax and SMS communications capable of capturing up to 40 million minutes of chatter a month for analysis. Zebra featured in Wikileaks’ 2011 Spy Files, which attempted to collate data on all firms supplying spymasters and private companies with tools for mass surveillance.

SPII’s funds are earmarked for “financial assistance for the development of commercially viable, innovative products and /or processes and facilitate commercialization of such technologies.” As PI points out, Zebra was fully developed, commercialised and sold to the South African government as far back as 2005. So why was it receiving a large – but not significant to the company’s turnover – amount of cash for new products three years later?

PI’s Kenneth Page raises concerns that the SPII funds have no built-in mechanism of oversight to prevent money going funding schemes that “violation of human rights or misuse of that technology”. He says that the DTI would have been well aware of Zebra’s capabilities, and that the “South African government cannot even claim ignorance for funding the development of mass surveillance technologies that were used to violate the rights of the Libyan people”.

Yesterday PI released an updated version of the Spy Files which it calls the Surveillance Industry Index (SII). The SII contains 1 203 documents about 97 technologies promoted by 338 firms operating in 36 countries. Most of the documents are sales brochures for technologies that are sold legally under the guise of crime fighting and counter-terrorism operations, but which PI say are not properly scrutinised.

“What we found, and what we are publishing, is downright scary,” writes PI’s Matt Rice, “Surveillance companies are developing, marketing, and selling some of the most powerful, invasive, and dangerous technologies in the world, ones that are keeping pace with the capabilities of the NSA and GCHQ. What’s more, companies are maintaining relationships to the repressive regimes it sells to, constantly upgrading their systems and making customer service representatives available 24/7 for dictators and their cronies to reach out to should anything go awry with their products.”

The Stellenbosch-based VASTech defended its inclusion in the Spy Files in 2011, telling MyBroadband that “Our technology is competitive and allows for massive amounts of data to be stored and conveniently and intelligently retrieved.”

Another South African company, Seartech, is mentioned in both the Spy Files and the SII.

Page argues that South Africa, of all countries, should be wary of indiscriminate surveillance tools. Writing on the PI site he says: “Given the history of surveillance and infiltration carried out on South African society during the apartheid regime by the old State Security and National Intelligence services, it would certainly be a painful development that the post-apartheid South African government decided on wholesale funding of the development of mass surveillance technologies.”

The key questions in the open letter are below:

  • Did [the DTI] undertake any human rights due diligence procedures before or during the awarding of the public money to VASTech;
  • Were any other Departments, Ministers, or officials within the South African Government consulted before the awarding of grant;
  • Was the Ministry aware of Zebra being advertised as capable of mass surveillance before VASTech was awarded a second round of funding in 2010;
  • Has there been any further financial or personal links or activity between VASTech and the South African Government in the last 12 months; and
  • Did VASTech provide full and complete information on Zebra’s capabilities for mass surveillance in their SPII grant application?

(Via The Guardian, Image: Shutterstock)




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