Thousands of South African Cellphones are Being Tracked

SA Law Enforcement Are Using Loophole to Track SMS Messages.


According to a civil rights organization in South Africa, Right2Know, law enforcement agencies in the country are using SMS tracking and call tracking on over 70,000 South African cellphones each year.

Right2Know has been campaigning against a loophole within South African surveillance policies that allows law enforcement agencies in the country to essentially ask the network providers for data on sent SMS messages and calls with relatively little reason.

MTN‚ Telkom‚ Vodacom and Cell C were asked by Right2Know about how many warrants they receieved from law enforcement to track South African cellphones. The overall results showed that over 70,000 warrants were approved each year in 2015, 2016, and it’s likely to be the same for 2017.

The South African law enforcement are essentially using the Criminal Procedure’s Act to get the warrants approved, as opposed to going through the stricter ‘Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act,’ otherwise known as Rica.

In a statement written by Right2Know, the organization mentioned that, “Rica is meant to be SA’s primary surveillance law. It requires law enforcement and intelligence agencies to get the permission of a special judge‚ appointed by the president‚ to intercept a person’s communications. In order to apply for this warrant‚ they need to provide strong reasons because such interceptions threaten peoples’ right to privacy so much.”

The statement continued, “Policy makers have wrongly assumed that the information about the communication (such as the identity of who you have communicated with‚ when‚ and your location) is less sensitive than the content of the communication.”

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With this loophole, any magistrate can easily issue a warrant that allows the law enforcement in South Africa to gain access to any SMS and call data logged by the South African network operators. The data given through this method is considered to only be ‘meta-data’ and this is why the loophole has been successful in South Africa.

Essentially, law enforcement cannot see the contents of the SMS messages, but they can still see information about who sent messages to who, how many messages were sent, when the messages were sent, and also details about how long a call lasted for and when the call took place.

The organization campaigning against this believes that the meta-data still contains information that should be left untouched unless the information is needed in a crucial case.

“Policy makers are wrong to assume this information is less sensitive or private than the contents of the communication: meta-data can reveal as much‚ if not more‚ about a person’s contacts‚ interests and habits than what they say over the phone or in a text message. When a person’s communications information is handed over using the Criminal Procedures Act‚ they are never notified‚ even if the investigation is dropped or if they are found to be innocent.”

The Right2Know organization is demanding that all mobile network operators improve their protection for stored call and SMS message data so that law enforcement or other organizations cannot gain access to what Right2Know considers to be very private data.



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