Monday, 2 June 2014

How Government spies on you

((First appeared in Consumer News Namibia Magazine September 2013)

Many consumer around the world were not surprised to find out that governments all around the world have been spying on the people who use the Internet services provided by international companies such as Facebook, Google, Twitter to mention but a few.  Many of us believe that these requests were from governments in developed countries such as the United States of America or Britain. Consumer News Namibia Magazine decided to investigate these requests and see if there are any requests to the popular Facebook social site from within the SADC region.

International Awareness
Privacy is a fundamental human right, and is central to the maintenance of democratic societies. It is essential to human dignity and it reinforces other rights, such as freedom of expression and information, and freedom of association, and is recognised under international human rights law. Activities that restrict the right to privacy, including communications surveillance, can only be justified when they are prescribed by law, they are necessary to achieve a legitimate aim, and are proportionate to the aim pursued.

Surprisingly, two of our SADC neighbours, Botswana and South Africa have made requests to Facebook about users and their accounts. Botswana had made a total of 3 requests about 7 users, however no data was provided by the Facebook site. South Africa had made a total of 14 requests about 9 users but they too were denied any information by Facebook.

According to Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/about/government_requests ), Namibia had made no requests between the six months period of 1 January to 30 June 2013.

Looking at the newspapers over the past few weeks there has been more and more information being leaked about the interference by Governments in the private lives of their citizens.

International Consumer organisations such as Consumers International (CI) have realised for some time now there has been a need to update understandings of existing human rights law to reflect modern surveillance technologies and techniques. Nothing could demonstrate the urgency of this situation more than the revelations confirming the mass surveillance of innocent individuals around the world.

These organisations are signatories to the “International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance
The Preamble to the principles reads:

In abbreviated form these principles are:
  •          Legality: Any limitation on the right to privacy must be prescribed by law.

  •          Legitimate Aim: Laws should only permit communications surveillance by specified State authorities to achieve a legitimate aim that corresponds to a predominantly important legal interest that is necessary in a democratic society.

  •          Necessity: Laws permitting communications surveillance by the State must limit surveillance to that which is strictly and demonstrably necessary to achieve a legitimate aim.

  •          Adequacy: Any instance of communications surveillance authorised by law must be appropriate to fulfill the specific legitimate aim identified.

  •          Proportionality: Decisions about communications surveillance must be made by weighing the benefit sought to be achieved against the harm that would be caused to users' rights and to other competing interests.

  •          Competent judicial authority: Determinations related to communications surveillance must be made by a competent judicial authority that is impartial and independent.

  •          Due process: States must respect and guarantee individuals' human rights by ensuring that lawful procedures that govern any interference with human rights are properly enumerated in law, consistently practiced, and available to the general public.

  •          User notification: Individuals should be notified of a decision authorising communications surveillance with enough time and information to enable them to appeal the decision, and should have access to the materials presented in support of the application for authorisation.

  •          Transparency: States should be transparent about the use and scope of communications surveillance techniques and powers.

  •  ·         Public oversight: States should establish independent oversight mechanisms to ensure transparency and accountability of communications surveillance.

  •          Integrity of communications and systems: States should not compel service providers, or hardware or software vendors to build surveillance or monitoring capabilities into their systems, or to collect or retain information.



Namibia does not yet have a Consumer Protection Act, Electronic Transactions Act or Data Protection Act which many developing countries have already put in place. Thus one has to hope that these principles will be incorporated into the long-overdue legislation – and hopefully soon.

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