Africa cities

South Africa: activists threatened by surveillance

Members of the Abahlali baseMjondolo social movement claim that the state monitors their phones and emails, tracks their movements and constantly puts them at risk.

Land and housing rights activists from the Abahlali base in Mjondolo say they have become digitally savvy to protect themselves from alleged state surveillance.

For more than 17 years, the movement has endured relentless armed, violent, and illegal state-sanctioned evictions; the violent rebuttals of peaceful protests; and pushing back local ANC politicians. The leadership of the 100,000-strong organization has come under siege, and with the rise of communications technology and advances in surveillance, Abahlali’s vice president, Mqapheli Bonono, said the movement was being closely watched .

“Some of us aren’t very educated, but we had to learn things like Signal,” says Bonono. The communications platform’s end-to-end encryption doesn’t even allow Signal to read people’s messages, and there’s no data tracking.

“There are people tapping our phones, even with our email addresses, we’re not getting any messages and we’ve asked tech savvy people and they would tell us the emails are delayed because they are intercepted, and that is why we receive them late.

“It has been difficult for us to protect ourselves against digital surveillance, because remember that we are only people fighting for the rights to land, housing and dignity. We have not been exposed to cutting edge technology information so just imagine someone suddenly having to expose themselves to all of this due to the nature of our work Even if you haven’t taken a digital course you should know that you don’t you can’t click on any links, you can’t connect to any Wi-Fi, etc.

Monitoring of activists

Human rights organizations and lawmakers have suggested that “safe cities” and cyber laws could pose a new threat to activists. They suggest there should be reviews and reforms to protect human rights defenders from undue interception of communications, social media monitoring and location tracking through web analytics technology. camera surveillance.

Bonono says the use of digital gadgets has become anxiety-provoking, but activists need to communicate, organize and mobilize the community. “We are targeted by capitalists with no respect for human rights. Sometimes we wish we could just avoid using phones and computers because it is easy for us to be tracked with the location on our devices, which we must have for some. We got threatening calls, some saying, “Who do you think you are? So it’s a double-edged sword. They’re useful, but I don’t like using gadgets anymore because of the danger they represent in our lives.

Several members of the organization have been murdered while others have spent months in prison on false charges. Some of them had to go into hiding and cut off communication with their families for fear that their phones would be monitored and they would be physically followed. Today, with the rise of digital tools in the hands of corporations and government, the threat to activists is even greater.

An all-seeing eye

Environmental activist Robby Magkala, who has taken action against pollution, expansion and the unjust purchase of people by mines, says feeling exposed and insecure is wearing down activists.

“Threats spread people’s courage and passion,” says Makgala, coal campaign manager for environmental justice organization Groundwork. “There are people, especially leaders, who say I don’t care, I can die for the truth. But others feel they have to recant. Some have families or dependents whose they have to look after.They know that anything can happen to And there are no security measures in place to make them feel protected.

“Even working in the courts is difficult because you need resources, so it ends up wearing down activists. As GroundWork, we try to educate people on how to run the courts and even support environmentalists with resources, but it’s a real struggle.

“The police are the first to criminalize activists and protect institutions. They quickly break up a protest but do nothing when activists who oppose mining are threatened. I don’t know of a single case that has properly investigated. Not even when people have been killed. Take the case of Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe, the president of a community organization in Xolobeni, Eastern Cape. about a titanium mine proposed by the Australian company Mineral Commodities Ltd. More than three years after his murder, no one has been arrested.”

Advancing Rights in Southern Africa states in Computer Crime and Cybersecurity that while cybersecurity laws are crucial “there must be a balance that allows the unimpeded pursuit of the use and enjoyment of [information and communication technology] … a balance between the interests of law enforcement and the respect, protection, promotion and fulfillment of fundamental rights online must always remain paramount.”

Michael Kwet, a member of Yale’s Information Society Project whose research areas include the global digital economy and smart city initiatives, sounded the alarm about the amount of information surveillance companies are allowed to obtain.

“The surveillance industry has evolved from the old school blurry cameras where the footage is kept on tape, and if something happens, investigators come in and spend hours looking at that footage. That would also be a unique case like you have a camera at mr price it’s not part of a wide area network so they didn’t have the power to track people and if you wanted to there was no enough cameras and you had to look through each camera’s footage, which limits the amount of tracking you can do.

“The law has not kept up with the times, in my opinion there should be prohibitions on the coverage of each network, the number of cameras from each location, the density of the cameras and prohibitions on video analysis such as facial recognition There are other videos of the analyzes like do you ride a bike? do you walk? do you run? to these private companies a great knowledge of what is happening in public places and therefore it is a bit like an all-seeing eye.”

Unregulated mass surveillance

Over the past two decades, the deployment of video management systems has increased. The South African government has partnered with Vumacam for surveillance. Vumacam has over 5,000 cameras in Johannesburg and recently moved to Durban at the request of eThekwini Municipality.

The surveillance camera company uses artificial intelligence to recognize license plates and “suspicious behavior”. The company says it complies with all privacy laws, such as the Personal Information Protection Act, but Kwet says the law is not enough because it contains clauses that place rights at privacy in the background and “state security” first, allowing unregulated mass surveillance.

The South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) highlights problematic features of the notion that surveillance will solve crime and suggests that socio-economic issues are the real problem that needs to be solved, not targeted and criminalized the poor and marginalized.

City of Johannesburg officials have said in interviews that the use of facial recognition could in future be used to control “undocumented migrants” and that video analytics could be used to control protests. Their vision included the use of predictive analytics in which machine learning algorithms find patterns and make predictions about future events.

“At the same time, officials admitted they had no studies showing that their CCTV reduced crime. In May 2019, the press was reporting anecdotes and data – provided by the City – alleging that the use of cameras reduced crime. However, there are currently no independent peer-reviewed studies to confirm this,” writes the South African Institute of International Affairs in The City Surveillance State.

Kwet says that for digital surveillance to be effective, there would need to be cameras in every nook and cranny. “Even if some additional crimes were detected or averted, ultimately there would be no shortcut to fixing the situation. To truly tackle violent crime, burglary and theft, the country must reduce inequality, poverty and unemployment.”

Naledi Sikhakhane is a journalist researching digital surveillance with support from the Media Policy and Democracy Project, run by the Department of Communication and Media at the University of Johannesburg.

Sikhakhane is the 2022 Eugene Saldanha Fellow in Social Justice Journalism supported by the Summit Educational Trust.

Correction of June 3, 2022: A previous version of this article referred to Abhlali baseMjondolo as a land rights group, this has been corrected to reflect that it is a social movement.