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      Greatly Undermining Privacy Rights


      Photo: Contributed


      IMAGINE THE PRICES of fuel, food and other basic necessities continuing to skyrocket and protests breaking out across Namibia.

      Imagine you're in a food price protest in August 2023.

      It's been seven months since the operationalising of mandatory SIM card registration and data retention regulations under Part 6 of the Communications Act of 2009.

      You, and everyone else in the protest of about 300 to 500 people have your phone out recording the demonstration and communicating with others about what's happening via WhatsApp or social media.

      But because you have registered your SIM card and are now subject to data retention rules that have also come into effect in early 2023, everyone in the demonstration appear as clearly identifiable pinpoints on the surveillance systems of the state.

      They can see exactly where you are, who you're standing close to, and who you're communicating with.

      And they can use that information to target you, individually, or the whole group with a communication or internet shutdown, or they can isolate and target those they perceive to be ringleaders, or track them to where they can be picked up, arrested or isolated for intimidation.


      Through your SIM registration with your mobile service provider the state will have your name, home address, identity or passport numbers, and or a copy of your driving licence containing your photo.

      At the same time, under the data retention rules, they will have your telephone number, your internet protocol address, all the numbers you call, the date, time and duration of all your calls and internet activities, the closest base station and cell site when you made those calls or were online, and the nature of your telecommunications – whether it was a call, an SMS or WhatsApp message or any other form of data usage, such as accessing a social media platform.

      With all this information, the Namibian state surveillance apparatus can know and pinpoint where everyone with an active Namibian SIM card or access to an internet service in Namibia is with absolute accuracy at any moment in time beyond January 2023.

      They'll know when, how and who you're communicating with at all times, and they'll know when, how and how long you've been accessing the internet at all times.

      They'll know all this because your mobile and internet service provider has to store all this data for five years.

      This effectively means from January 2023 onwards, everyone using a mobile or internet service in Namibia will be under permanent, around-the-clock surveillance by their service provider at the behest of the state.

      This is permanent mass surveillance.

      This permanent mass surveillance is being implemented under the pretexts of 'national security' and 'crime prevention' through the Communications Regulatory Authority of Namibia (Cran).


      But these pretexts are highly questionable.

      Over the last decade and a half, or so, more than 150 countries worldwide have adopted mandatory SIM card registration and data retention schemes similar to what Namibia will be implementing as from 2023.

      And yet, the last decade, from about 2010, has seen an exponential growth in global cybercrime, indicating that the widespread adoption of mandatory SIM card registration and data retention schemes has not deterred or prevented cybercrime.

      In a January 2019 report, international privacy and digital rights organisation Privacy International (PI) stated: “SIM registration has not been effective in curbing crime, but instead has fuelled it: States which have adopted SIM card registration have seen the growth of identity-related crime, and have witnessed black markets quickly pop up to service those wishing to remain anonymous. Moreover, SIMs can be illicitly cloned, or criminals can use foreign SIMs on roaming mode, or internet and satellite telephones, to circumvent SIM registration requirements.”


      When the scenario of the hypothetical protest in the context of permanent mass surveillance was sketched to two groups of Namibian young people at the recent YouthQuake event, hosted by the Namibia Media Trust, the overwhelming responses were shock and alarm.

      Some young people said the scope of the state's access to their communication and online footprints would deter or make them more cautious about using mobile telecommunications or internet services.

      Namibians appear to not be in favour of having their mobile or online communications permanently spied on by the state.

      In round 8 of the Afrobarometer survey, Namibians were asked two questions under question 74 of the survey, the results of which were fully released in October 2021.

      The first question asked whether the government “should be able to monitor private communications, for example on mobile phones, to make sure people are not plotting violence?”, to which only 38% of respondents answered yes.

      The second question asked whether people “should have the right to communicate in private without a government agency reading or listening to what they are saying?”, to which 60% answered yes.

      Namibians' fears are well-founded, for the Uganda-based Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa, in a September 2021 report states that such extensive personal data retention schemes by countries across the continent have “greatly undermined the ability of citizens to communicate anonymously, given the amount of personal data that is collected, retained and shared through these exercises, without adequate oversight and respect for individuals' privacy rights”.

      *This is part one of a two-part series. The final instalment will be published next Friday.

      – Frederico Links is a Namibian journalist and researcher. This article was commissioned by the Media Policy and Democracy Project (MPDP), an initiative of the University of Johannesburg's department of journalism, film and TV, and Unisa's department of communication science.

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