UN concerned about Privacy and Interception in South Africa

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The United Nations Human Right Committee is concerned that the South African Government is unlawfully surveilling, intercepting and monitoring the private communications (like emails, SMSs, and phone calls) of its citizens on a mass scale. The committee is concerned that the National Communications Centre (NCC), a branch of the State Security Agency (SSA), is the weapon the government is using to violate citizens’ right to privacy . Why does the South African government want to conduct surveillance and interception of private communications? Why is it not complying with the law in doing it? Is South Africa becoming a police state? How do you feel about knowing that the South African Government could be monitoring your communications without your knowledge?

How is privacy and interception an issue in South Africa?

Information is power

Considering that the right to privacy appears in the Bill of Rights of our constitution, the logical conclusion people would probably come to is that our law fully protects the right. The reality, though, as the committee points out, is that this country is not fully complying with the covenant. The main areas of concern are that the SA Government is:

  • conducting unlawful mass surveillance and interception of private communications,
  • the retention or storage of the data acquired through such surveillance and interception,
  • the weak requirements that have to be fulfilled before surveillance can lawfully take place,
  • the weak or non-existent protection against unlawful surveillance and interception of private communications, and
  • the delays in allowing the Information Regulator to be fully operational (especially when considering that the regulator will help deal with these matters once fully operational)

This is, in fact, not even a new issue because reports of the government’s involvement in spying on its citizens go as far back as 2013.

What are some of the recommendations made?

The committee is very clear on some of the steps it requires the South African government to take in order to better the situation. The broadest advice it gives is for the government to ensure that:

  • any surveillance and interception of private communications is done in line with the international human rights law,
  • the country’s laws, including getting a court order before conducting mass surveillance,
  • and increasing public awareness of international human rights law

This just goes to show the importance of understanding information security and the laws surrounding it. Such an understanding helps you ensure that despite what the government does or does not do, you are informed of your legal position and know how to protect your interests.

One other thing to take away from what the committee said is that the Information Regulator needs to urgently be appointed. Whoever is appointed to the office will ensure that they are the citizens’ first line of defence against state invasion of privacy. The Inspector-General of Intelligence is also very important in defending against such invasions of privacy and will prove quite useful when combining oversight powers with those of the Information Regulator. This is very urgent and will determine whether or not the South African Government protects privacy or infringes it.

In fact, the committee is also saying that, under the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-related Information Act (RICA), the governmental officials responsible are guilty of offences punishable with sentences of up to ten years’ imprisonment. And that the government chooses to use the NCC while knowing that it is unregulated by RICA and operates outside of the law. Ultimately, the committee is saying that the government enacted RICA to regulate its interception and surveillance activities, but is now not abiding by that law.

You can read the full UN report here.

Letting us help you

To get the latest expert advice and knowledge on information security you should attend our Information Security Workshop. There, you will also learn about the importance of a clear incident response policies containing a carefully planned and proactive response that will address your issues.

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By | 2017-03-30T13:21:41+00:00 April 20th, 2016|Categories: POPI and Data Protection|Tags: , , |