SUNDAY READ: R2K asks what is RICA for?

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Last week we reported on the fact that Vodacom in South Africa was unable to take part in its parent company’s global transparency report, because local telephone networks aren’t allowed to reveal numbers relating to how often authorities request to wiretap, intercept or otherwise harvest data from their services. Most countries allow firms to reveal general statistics like this, as it’s a perceived right of the public to know more or less what the government gets up to in their name – even if they can’t, for obvious reasons, know the specifics.

Right2Know, the most prolific group of internet privacy activists in the country, has finally weighed in on the issue with a long essay by spokesperson Murray Hunter over at non-profit news org GroundUp.co.za. It’s well worth reading in full.

In the essay, Hunter points out some fundamental problems with RICA – that court orders requesting its use rose 170% between 2008 and 2011, that freedom of information enquiries about it are often ignored or acted upon slowly, and that despite having been in use since 2002, there’s been no discussion of its effectiveness as a law enforcement measure (but there have been examples of its abuse for the benefit of those in authority and bugging journalists).

Hunter calls for this debate to start:

But if the trade-off is between privacy and security, is Rica helping to fight crime? The law was passed in 2002, at a time when people were definitely more concerned about tackling crime than tackling state-securitisation. But how many actual arrests come from Rica interceptions? A debate about Rica’s usefulness and appropriateness is difficult without this information.

And rounds off with a clarion call about the way a mature democracy should approach issues around balancing the needs of the security services against the rights of the citizens.

On South Africa, however, that debate has yet to happen. Privacy is often treated as a ‘luxury’ when many people are still struggling for bread-and-butter issues. But privacy is a basic political right that is central to freedom of thought, expression and association. In times of upheaval and social conflict, often driven by struggles for socio-economic rights, people’s ability to organise may be put under increasing pressure, and privacy will be one of the first freedoms to crumble.

It’s a great piece. Go read it here.

[Image – CC comedy_nose via flickr.com]

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