ZAMBIA has been listed as one of seven African countries using ICT tools developed by Circles, an Israeli telecoms company, to spy on citizens’ phone calls and texts, among other communications.
In a recent report titled “Running in Circles”, the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, which investigates digital espionage against civil society and published on the africanarguments.org website, Zambia was found on a list of seven African countries that details how governments were using tools developed by the Israeli telecoms company to spy on citizens’ communications.
According to data seen on the website, some regimes had turned to digital surveillance technology to crush resistance and any opposition to their autocratic rule, mainly via smartphones, which had seen an exponential growth in usage among Africans on the continent.
Zambia was cited as one of the seven African countries whose regimes had adopted the spyware to snoop on citizens, which had led to the arbitrary arrest a group of bloggers who ran an opposition news site in 2019.
“Zambia appears to be another Circles client. Its government also has a record of using surveillance against its critics. In 2019, authorities arrested a group of bloggers who ran an opposition news site, allegedly with the aid of a cyber-surveillance unit in Zambia’s telecommunications regulator (ZICTA) used to pinpoint the bloggers’ locations. It is not known if a Circles system was used, but the technology has these capabilities,” the Article disclosed.
“As Internet penetration and smartphone usage increases across Africa, digital spaces have become increasingly important in organising opposition movements. In response, several governments have at times shut down the Internet or blocked social media apps. More recently, however, some regimes have turned to digital surveillance technology for more subtle ways to crush resistance. Its technology is sold to nation-states only. It intercepts data from 3G networks, allowing the infiltrator to read messages, e-mails, and listen in on phone calls as they occur. Using only a telephone number, a Circles platform can also identify the location of a phone anywhere in the world within seconds without a warrant.”
It revealed that Circles is affiliated to a company whose spyware is widely used to keep surveillance on human rights advocates and journalists.
“Circles is affiliated with the notorious NSO Group, whose Pegasus spyware has been widely used to spy on human rights defenders and journalists. Unlike that technology, however, Circles’ tools does not require targets to click on a malicious link. It works by exploiting flaws in Signalling System No.7 (SS7), the set of protocols that allows networks to exchange calls and text messages between each other. SS7 is predominantly used in 2G and 3G systems, which in 2019 became the leading mobile technology in sub-Saharan Africa, accounting for over 45 per cent of all connections. With the faster and possibly more secure 4G networks years away from becoming the standard for mobile connectivity in Africa, Circles technology is ideal for power-hungry African leaders looking to spy on critics. Indeed, of the 25 countries identified as likely to be using Circles’ tools, seven are on the continent,” read the report.
Aside from Zambia the spyware was also deployed in Nigeria, Botswana and Zimbabwe, among three other African countries.
“Nigeria; citizen Lab detected two Circles systems being used in Nigeria. It identified one likely client as being the Nigerian Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), while a 2016 investigation by the Premium Times found that the governors of Delta and Bayelsa states used Circles to spy on opponents. Nigeria has a long history of surveillance technologies being used against civil society and government critics. Femi Adeyeye, a Lagos-based political activist who has been detained several times, cites several cases – such as those of Omoyele Sowore, Abubakar Idris Dadiyata and Stephen Kefas – in which Nigerians have been swiftly traced, arrested and detained after criticising the government. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has also reported numerous cases of the Nigerian authorities targeting journalists’ phones,” it stated.
“’We are already in the worst stage of dictatorship,’ says Adeyeye. ‘Freedom of expression, media, and political association have been further weakened by this spying technology’,” Adeyeye is quoted to have said in the report.
” ‘They have seen how people have been traced, their passports seized, bank accounts frozen and they have been forced to go into exile’, he says. Zimbabwe; three Circles platforms were detected in Zimbabwe. The use of one dates back to 2013, while another was activated in March, 2018. The Zimbabwean government has long targeted its critics and opponents. Last year, investigative journalist Hopewell Chin’ono and opposition politician Jacob Ngarivhume were detained ahead of anti-government protests. Circles technology may be facilitating this repression.”
Botswana was equally linked to two Circles surveillance systems dating back to 2015.
“Botswana; despite being hailed as one of Africa’s most democratic countries, Botswana’s Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services (DISS) is linked to two Circles surveillance systems dating back to 2015. The DISS is known for targeting journalists investigating political corruption. According to Moeti Mohwasa, spokesperson for the opposition Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), Israeli companies have been selling spying software to the Botswana government for years. He alleges that this equipment has been used to eavesdrop on opposition politicians and union leaders,” read the article.
“Kenya Citizen Lab detected a Circles system being used in Kenya. This did not surprise Suhayl Omar, who researches policing, surveillance, and militarism in Nairobi. ‘In Kenya, freedom of expression and media freedoms are under constant threat. The [Uhuru] Kenyatta regime has waged a war against constitutionalism and any form of opposition in Kenya’, he says. ‘The Kenyan government relies heavily on surveillance of its citizens to crack down on any form of opposition’.”
Efforts to get hold of Transport and Communications Minister Mutotwe Kafwaya and the Zambia Information and Communications Technology Authority (ZICTA) proved futile by press time as all were unavailable for a comment.