Govt internet surveillance repressive

HARARE - The idea of stepping up Internet surveillance is gaining traction in Zimbabwe, with the reclusive State security agency now given a central role in governing cyberspace, and the Computer Crime and Cyber Crime Bill set to be passed in Parliament by December.

Once a bureaucratic backwater, the State security agency was last week put in charge of Zimbabwe’s information security, a move that risks losing the open and free Internet, violating citizens’ rights and stripping some amount of privacy from the Internet.

As the State security agency morphs into the country’s top fighter of cyber-crime through an appointment of one of its top officers to head the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz) and to also operate the government’s massive electronic surveillance network, fresh legislation is on the cards that will empower police to confiscate electronic equipment and raid broadband service providers, intercept private communications, search and seize any “electronic gadgets,” and send any “abusers” to jail for five years.

The controversial Computer Crime and Cyber Crime Bill will also apply to Zimbabweans in the Diaspora who use social media to organise protests at home, and decrees their extradition back home.

According to the proposed law’s white paper, it essentially hobbles social media and significantly expands government’s powers of digital surveillance by transferring power from “geeks” to government bureaucrats.

This emerges as perhaps the most important dissident leader, cleric Evan Mawarire and other pressure groups in July helped bring tens of thousands of people onto the streets using social media in a rare civilian-led demonstration promoted with hashtags #ThisFlag and #Tajamuka, and described by many as the most subversive movement in Zimbabwe’s recent history.

Mawarire’s stay-away call successfully managed to shut down the capital, Harare, in a series of protests against alleged bad governance by President Robert Mugabe’s regime.

Mugabe and army commander Phillip Valerio Sibanda both saw these developments as part of a disinformation campaign by anti-government forces to manipulate crowds, change public opinion and topple the government.

Authorities blame outside forces on the Internet for constantly creating tensions within Zimbabwean society and also hold liable foreign sites for spreading political speculation and calls to unauthorised protests.

In an apparent reaction, government last week appointed Gift Kallistos Machengete, the current State security agency director of finance and administration, the new director of Potraz.

Serving at the pinnacle of such a powerful telecoms regulator would be a remarkably powerful position for any man.

But Machengete’s rise is particularly notable — and to some, downright troubling — given his State security agency-sponsored training, his long tenure as an intelligence officer, his alliance with the Mugabe regime, his deep and ongoing relationship with the spy agency and his long service in the diplomatic service.

Of course, none of this history was ever mentioned during his appointment, made through the Press last week.

Machengete is also an entrepreneur and thinker. A holder of an MBA, he has served in Zimbabwe’s diplomatic missions in China and Malaysia either as deputy ambassador or commissioner.

His financial success and influence is a testament to how skillfully he has walked this fine line.

International diamonds watchdog group’s Global Witness’ report titled “Financing A Parallel Government?” names Machengete as a director of diamond company Sino-Zimbabwe Development (Pvt) Ltd, and allegedly has a controlling 51 percent stake in the firm’s shares.

He is also a Grain Marketing Board (GMB) board member and is listed on the State grain utility’s website.

He worked in the President’s Office as a research economist between 1985 and 1991. He also headed the coordination and secretariat department in the President’s Office  in 1998.

After serving as acting high commissioner at the Zimbabwean High Commission in Malaysia; he was appointed deputy director administration and finance in thePresident’s Office  in 2006.

It’s an enigmatic profile that’s on the rise as Machengete’s influence grows.

At Potraz, his mission will be tracking down cyber criminals, monitoring online and telephone activities and enabling government regulation of social networks to thwart protest movements. Essentially, he will be responsible for the security of so many of our PCs, tablets, and smartphones.

There is a sense in government that citizens are abusing freedoms imbued in social sites such as Facebook and micro-blogging site Twitter to manipulate public opinion and stir protests against the nonagenarian’s 36-year rule.

When the Mugabe regime or Munhumutapa officials talk about responses to online threats, they are not just talking about restricting malicious data — they also want to restrict what they consider malicious information, including words and ideas that can spur unrest.

Mugabe and the security forces have espoused strikingly similar views on cyber-security and go beyond the security industry’s basic mission of keeping data safe.

The 92-year-old president claimed just after his April State visit to Japan that social media was a place for very dangerous action, and slammed those who create and share subversive content or participate in abusive social networking, that has been mainly targeted at him and his government officials.

“There’s a lot of bad stuff on the Internet,” Mugabe said.

“There’s a lot of abuse that happens there. Some people use the Internet in bad ways. It’s everywhere. But the Chinese have put in place security measures and we will look at these so that we stop these abuses on the Internet.”

Sibanda has categorically blamed social networks for fuelling protest movements here, and said the security forces were on “alert” to deal with any “cyber-based de-stabilisation” of Zimbabwe.

“We are training our officers to be able to deal with this new threat we call cyber warfare where weapons — not necessarily guns but basically information and communication technology — are being used to mobilise people to do the wrong things,” he said.

There are concerns that the latest moves are unconstitutional and illegal, and would circumvent any current requirement for government to justify and obtain approval for any intercept or recovery activity which breaches a user’s statutory rights to privacy of communications.

The fact that these initiatives are coming thick and fast following the enactment of a pro-democracy Constitution in 2013 that guarantees greater freedoms, adds multiple layers of irony.

Critics have noted the lack of official rationale or justification for the new measures except to thwart demonstrations, which are explicitly approved in the new Constitution.

It may be that the Zimbabwean authorities feel even less need to apologise to anyone for their own means of protecting national security and preserving Mugabe’s long rule.

Comments (1)

Zanu PF has no chance in technological issues. Let them try all they can. This is an engineering field which requires ingenuity not political loyalty/blessings to achieve results. And your lies will be exposed in a flash when bluffing. Welcome to the party!

Sagitarr - 23 October 2016

Post a comment

Readers are kindly requested to refrain from using abusive, vulgar, racist, tribalistic, sexist, discriminatory and hurtful language when posting their comments on the Daily News website.
Those who transgress this civilised etiquette will be barred from contributing to our online discussions.
- Editor

Your email address will not be shared.