An international report which details the extent of state surveillance of civilians via the internet has detailed the case of two South African journalists as an example of how local police circumvent the legal process to wiretap mobile phones.

Today’s Global Information Society (GIS) Watch report, launched in Johannesburg, taps into the previous notions of public surveillance and details a collection of electronic surveillance accounts from across the world, and in South Africa.

Professor of journalism at the University of Johannesburg, Jane Duncan, authored the chapter on South Africa and used it to highlight that the Regulation of Interception of Information Act (RICA), which came into force a couple of years ago, was used to tap into journalists’ phones.

RICA is the act that came into effect in 2011, and compels every owner of a mobile SIM card to register their details such as the mobile number, their ID number and address, with their mobile service provider. The aim of the legislation is to help the relevant law enforcement agencies to identify mobile phone users and track down criminals using mobile phones for illegal activities.

Duncan gave an example of two Sunday Times investigative journalists, Mzilikazi wa Africa and Stephan Hofstatter, who’s mobile phones where tapped by inserting their mobile phone numbers into a bogus request to get a judge to approve the surveillance.

“What does this mean in terms of RICA? The grounds for interception is rather vague, which can lead to a lot of speculation. There is also no user notifications that surveillance is going to be carried out or that it has stopped – it is very much open to abuse. The act of such surveillance has to be made harder for the police to smuggle numbers into dodgy information requests,” she said during the media briefing.

Duncan added that RICA has a problem in principle, as it is against the right to privacy. She mentioned that on practical grounds, there is little evidence that SIM registering is being used internationally for what it is supposed to do.

“We don’t know to what extent the government’s surveillance capabilities are being put,” she said. In order to conduct targeted surveillance on a mobile phone, authorities need to get permission from a judge to do so.

But Duncan highlights that a request to gather metadata can simply go through a magistrate, and sometimes metadata can contain more data than regular surveillance activity. Metadata can include anything from who you have been calling, sending texts to or who you have been in electronic contact with. It does not, however, include the actual data of the messages. While metadata can reveal how you emailed, it doesn’t contain the actual text of the mail.

“It is only a matter of time when mass surveillance will be declared unlawful in parts of the world. Lawful targeted surveillance is regulated, but if this is the state of our mass surveillance, then we need to be very afraid.”

The question was raised whether mobile phone and electronic surveillance was only an issue that investigative journalists should be afraid of, as the average person doesn’t have anything to hide.

Duncan refuted the notion, saying that everybody could be a target – simply through the people that you have contact with.

“It is not an elite set of issues just for journalists. If you are a member of Amcu, Numsa, or even the EFF you should care about surveillance – and these are ordinary people. The capacity of the state is being used to close competing forces from the top. But we do face a problem to get ordinary people aware of what is going on.”

“We have freedom of press, but then the government uses other avenues to diminish that.”

The case of phone tapping of the two Sunday Times journalists can be read here. In short, wa Africa made several trips to Mozambique to follow up on an investigative lead involving then-National Commissioner of the SAPS Bheki Cele. Once Cele caught wind of this, wa Africa claims that his mobile number as well as Hofstatter’s was covertly inserted into a police application to tap the phone numbers of “weapons smugglers”. He claims all the police had to do was present a judge with the phony name and their mobile numbers in order to get the judge’s approval.

wa Africa was made aware of the phone tapping by a confidential source.

Sunday Times has taken the matter to court under the case of “Unlawful collection of information”. The case is currently pending.

The entire 284-page report on the state of surveillance in 57 countries can be read here.

Today’s report follows hot on the heels of yesterday’s revelations about police spying discussed in the Right2Know campaign’s Big Brother EXPOSED report.

[Image – CC by 2.0/Lotus Carroll]

Charlie started his professional life as a motoring journalist for a community newspaper in Mpumalanga, Charlie explored different journalistic angles since his entry into the fast-paced world of publishing in 2006. While fostering a passion for the arts, Charlie developed a love for technology – both which allowed him to serve as Entertainment and Technology Editor for an online publication. Charlie has since been heavily involved in consumer technology for various websites and publications. He thoroughly enjoys World War II films and cerebral documentaries; aviation; photography and indie music. Oh yes, and he also has a rather strange obsession with collecting coffee mugs from his travels.