BIG BROTHER

Kenya may soon be tapping the phones of its citizens

Quartz africa
Quartz africa

Kenyan authorities may soon be monitoring the phone calls, text messages, and mobile money transactions of millions of its citizens. Regulators are ordering mobile phone operators including Safaricom, Airtel, and Orange to allow access, according to the Nation, a Kenyan paper that has obtained a letter from the Communications Authority of Kenya to one of these operators.

The order comes almost six months before Kenya holds national elections where races for the office of the presidency and dozens of counties are likely to be contentious. Critics, tweeting under the hashtag MobilePrivacyIsMyRight, say the system will be used as an excuse to shut down mobile networks after the election to stifle any protest. Kenyan regulators have already said they will be monitoring social media for hate speech that might cause the kind of violence that left more than 1,000 dead after elections in 2007.

The CAK, responding to criticism, claims the initiative, a “device monitoring system” (DMS), is aimed only at blocking counterfeit phones from being used on mobile phone networks. On its Facebook page the agency said the DMS would not access the personal data of subscribers. The system could launch as soon as next week.

It’s not an absurd defense. Kenya has been going after counterfeit phones for a while. Many of Kenya’s 40 million cell phone users have cheap, knock-off brand-name phones, identifiable by their International Mobile Equipment Identity, a unique 15-digit code. In 2012, the regulator ordered all operators to switch off fake phones being used on their system.

Still, much like some of its Western allies, Kenya has been using the war on terror to ramp up monitoring and surveillance. The militant Somalia-based group al-Shabaab has been launching attacks in Kenya in retaliation for the country’s support of AMISOM troops in Somalia. In 2012, Kenya passed two laws that expanded the police’s ability to monitor (pdf, p.96) communications of citizens. Though the public is so far not aware of any PRISM-like surveillance program, rights groups fear that digital surveillance has formed the basis for extrajudicial killings by the police.

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