Campaign mobilises against e-surveillance

JOHN HARVEY

The Salt River-based Right2Know campaign will release a statement on Monday demanding the government address surveillance practices in South Africa, specifically with re-gard to the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act (RICA).

The Tatler can reveal exclusively the organisation will unveil the statement to the public on April 25 after a decision was taken to mobilise against how RICA has been implemented, with R2K believing the act potentially threatens the privacy of millions of South Africans. The draft statement, a copy of which is in this newspaper’s possession, demands the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development “fix” RICA through an open and public process.

The R2K action follows a damning condemnation of South Africa in a UN Human Rights Committee report on March 30, which pointed to “relatively weak safeguards, oversight and remedies against unlawful interference with the right to privacy contained in RICA”.

“It (UN committee) is also concerned about the wide scope of the data retention regime under the act. The committee is further concerned at reports of unlawful surveillances practices, including mass interception of communications, carried out by the National Communications Centre and at delays in fully operationalising the Protection of Personal Information Act, 2013, due in particular to delays in the establishment of an information regulator,” the UN Human Rights Committee report says.

It recommended that the South African government stop engaging in mass surveillance of private communications without the express authorisation of a judge, and consider revoking or limiting the requirement for mandatory retention of data by telecommunications and internet service providers.

In February, R2K, Privacy International and the Association for Progressive Communications submitted a joint report on surveillance and privacy issues in South Africa to the UN Human Rights Committee for review. The committee’s findings now appear to have confirmed R2K’s fears.

Murray Hunter, the national coordinator of the R2K campaign, said the findings on surveillance were “very strong ones”.

“We have big problems in South Africa in this regard. A sizeable government delegation was sent to Geneva, but when Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development John Jeffery was asked about South Africa’s surveillance methods, he side-stepped the issue,” Mr Hunter said.

“The response was that the government would rather engage people locally. But this is not the answer. The committee’s findings prove that the government is going further than it should when it comes to surveillance. We talk about ‘at-risk’ groups when it comes to spying practices – activists and journalists – but the truth is that RICA is affecting all South Africans.

“Because of the way RICA works, all data can be stored for between three and five years. This data can tell you everything about a person, from passwords to bank account numbers and other personal information. This threatens the privacy of all of us.”

Mr Hunter said the UN report now demanded a “homegrown response”, which was why R2K was mobilising.

South Africa has recently established an information regulator, and last week Parliament’s portfolio committee on justice and correctional services shortlisted candidates for board vacancies within the SA Human Rights Commission and the information regulator. Among the candidates are former Independent Electoral Commission chairwoman Pansy Tlakula.

Requests for comment from Department of Justice spokesperson Mthunzi Mhaga on the UN findings remained unanswered at the time of going to print. However in a media release from the department, dated March 10, 2015, Mr Mhaga said Mr Jeffery had highlighted the work done by South Africa’s democratic government in the past 22 years, in eradicating the three main pillars in the legacy of apartheid – inequality, unemployment and poverty.

“At the heart of the ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) lies the ideal of free human beings, enjoying civil and political freedom and freedom from fear and want. Deputy Minister Jeffery stressed that this can only be achieved when conditions are created whereby every person may enjoy their civil and political rights, as well as their economic, social and cultural rights.

“Since the advent of democracy in 1994, South Africa has demonstrated its commitment to world peace, security and justice. In addressing the legacy of our past, government has adopted a number of positive measures to heal the divisions of the past and has established a society based on the democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights.”

The statement made no reference to surveillance practices.