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R2K gives telcos 30 days to provide surveillance stats

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R2K is calling on MTN, Vodacom, Telkom and Cell C to reveal how often sensitive data is handed over to government agencies.
R2K is calling on MTN, Vodacom, Telkom and Cell C to reveal how often sensitive data is handed over to government agencies.

The Right2Know Campaign (R2K) has filed Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) requests with MTN, Vodacom, Telkom and Cell C to find out how often they hand over sensitive customer information to government agencies.

R2K says this came after a recent Daily Maverick report on a legal loophole that allows magistrates to authorise thousands of 'surveillance operations' every year, forcing telecoms operators to hand over sensitive information about their customers' communications.

The advocacy group says this is happening parallel to the provisions of RICA (The Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act).

"We don't know how often this loophole is used, but we need to know. This is why R2K has filed requests for information using the Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA) asking all major telecoms companies to disclose how often the loophole is used. PAIA states that a request for information must get a response within 30 days," R2K says in a statement.

"While there is growing awareness on RICA's surveillance protocols, which states that someone's communication may only be intercepted if authorised by a specially appointed judge, few people are aware that surveillance is also being authorised outside RICA - possibly at a far higher rate."

R2K says the loophole exists in s205 of the Criminal Procedures Act, which allows law enforcement officials to bypass the RICA judge and approach any magistrate for a warrant that forces a telecoms company to give over a customer's call records and metadata if that person is under investigation. However, that person is never notified, even if the investigation is dropped or if they are found to be innocent.

"A person's call records contains incredibly sensitive information, and needs high levels of protection to enforce the constitutional right to privacy," R2K says.

The group is asking telcos to disclose statistics of how many warrants they have received via s205, for the years 2015 to 2017. The requests do not ask for information about warrants that have been issued by the RICA judge because RICA's secrecy provisions forbid the telecoms companies from disclosing such information.

"There is growing evidence and growing fears that the South African government is abusing its surveillance powers, both through RICA and outside of it," according to R2K.

There is growing evidence and growing fears that the South African government is abusing its surveillance powers, both through RICA and outside of it. R2K.

The advocacy group has demanded urgent reforms to RICA, which it says should include an immediate closing of this loophole, but says "there can be no meaningful reform process without transparency, both from government and from the private sector".

"We call on MTN, Vodacom, Telkom and Cell C to take their customers into their confidence, and reveal how often sensitive data is handed over to government agencies," it concludes.

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