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A Kenyan man talks on his mobile while walking through the high density suburb of Kangami in Nairobi, Kenya on 26 March 2008. The Kenyan government plans to sell 25 per cent of its stake in the highly profitable mobile operator Safaricom by holding east Africa's largest ever IPO which is scheduled to begin selling shares on 28 December 2008.
EPA/Stephen Morrison
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Kenya’s phone companies are letting the government spy on ordinary citizens

By Abdi Latif Dahir

Updated:

Kenya’s security and counterterrorism agencies pressure telecommunication companies to gain access to customer data and use that to commit gross human rights abuses, a new report claims.

Intelligence agencies reportedly place enforcement agents within telecom operators’ facilities, circumvent the law and protocol to access information, and directly intercept communications among private citizens, claims a new report from UK-based human rights watchdog, Privacy International.

This unfettered access has given law enforcement units the ability “to spy on, profile, locate, track – and ultimately arrest, torture, kill or disappear suspects,” says the report, titled “Track, Capture, Kill.” The investigation was based on interviews and testimonies from intelligence and military officials, besides operators, regulators, and lawyers.

Communication surveillance has become even more stringent in the wake of al-Shabaab terrorist attacks that have bedeviled the country over the last five years.

Privacy International paints a damning picture of how anti-terrorism agencies are so immersed within the system that operators have “little to no knowledge” of the interception taking place within their networks. The existence of a number of controversial security laws, such as the National Intelligence Service Act and the Prevention of Terrorism Act, have also emboldened these agencies’ broad surveillance and interception capacities.

Safaricom, Kenya’s largest mobile operator, disputed the report’s claims saying Safaricom “retains a deep respect and commitment to ensuring our customer data remains private.” The company also said that only authorized staff had access to its systems and did not have any intelligence officers “employed, formally or informally, at Safaricom.”

Airtel Kenya told Quartz that it was “yet to officially receive the said report and therefore we cannot comment on the same. However, as a company, we do not share records or data to law enforcement or security agents without a court order.”

The information is reportedly collected by the National Intelligence Service and provided to members of the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit or the Recce Company from the General Service Unit. What is also problematic about these police squads is that some of them have been linked to extrajudicial killings and disappearances across the country. Kenyan police also shot and killed 122 people in the first eight months of 2016, with numbers probably higher because they are not reported to the media or human rights organizations. A trove of emails from WikiLeaks have also in the past revealed that NIS acquired software to shut down websites deemed offensive to the government.

The findings come to the fore at a watershed moment, five months before the east African nation holds elections. Just last month, a letter obtained by a local daily disclosed how directives from regulators might soon force operators to disclose the phone calls, text messages and mobile money transactions of millions of citizens. The Communications Authority of Kenya has said that it will monitor social media for hate speech during the election season, but will not shut down the internet unless there were “adverse outcomes.” As many as 1,400 people died during the violence that followed the 2007 elections, and more than half a million people were displaced from their homes.