South African police accessed call records from at least 71,000 phones

Image: AP Photo/Themba Hadebe
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South African law enforcement accessed call records from over 71,000 phones, according to a report by privacy advocacy group Right2Know Campaign (R2K). Four major operators—MTN, Cell C, Vodacom and Telkom—are named in its report.

In 2017 alone, law enforcement intercepted over 71,000 Vodacom phone numbers and 549 Telkom numbers, according to the two companies. MTN and Cell C did not report how many phone numbers they had given to the police, but did show that law enforcement issued 15,115 warrants for records to MTN, while Cell C received 2,347. The data was released in response to a request by R2K.

In an op-ed for South African website the Daily Maverick, investigative journalist Heidi Swart explains that police are allowed to access communication records from network operators if they apply for a court order from “a high court judge, regional court magistrate or magistrate” under section 205 of the Criminal Procedure Act. This can be useful for tracking down a network of people involved in organized, as seen in the case of Nel v Le Roux NO and others in 1996. Here, the constitutional court ruled that the section 205 helped investigate and prosecute crimes without compromising a person’s rights.

But law enforcement need to convince the judge that all avenues of getting information had been exhausted before launching an order to listen in on calls, or access communication records. And the magistrate court is required to inspect every court order from the police carefully so that the process doesn’t become a matter of “rubber stamping” documents.

Right2Know has argued that the police neglected to go through the correct processes, thus putting the transparency and accountability of handling such sensitive information into question.

South African surveillance laws are governed by the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-Related Information Act (RICA) which is meant to safeguard the privacy rights of mobile users.

The head of media relations for the South African police, Brigadier Vishnu Naidoo, declined to comment on Right2Know’s report.