Your life on screen: Inside the super-surveillance state
Urban fantasy writer Lauren Beukes, author of Moxyland and Zoo City, dives into 2015 where secret policing is made simple with social network snooping.
The view from the Meerkats’ offices, at an undisclosed location on the Cape Town Foreshore, overlooks white-sailed yachts on a choppy grey sea and the distant industry of shipping containers being shuffled around by cranes and trucks in the harbour. On the other side, the bustle of the city bowl is reduced to the blank façades of buildings, the faint hum of traffic. It’s an enviable view for a government department. It’s a pity no one’s taking it in.
That’s because the Meerkats team, 48 of them, on this floor at least, are glued to their screens. A mix of programmers and “intelligence collectors”, the elite surveillance unit is watching the greatest show on Earth—you!
“It’s actually very tedious,” Lerato Makhetha says, looking over my shoulder at the information scrolling across the screen. The Meerkats’ director of operations is sharply pretty, 36, and barely 1,57m—a petite Big Brother in heels and a Maya Prass dress. It would be easy to underestimate her.
The info stream is harvested from cellular phone calls, social media, CCTV, cookies, browser histories and even embedded fashion cams, hot off the catwalk and feeding information straight into the Meerkats’ servers.
“We’ve got algorithms in place to do the heavy lifting—detecting blatant abuse, unauthorised disclosures on flagged materials, problem phrases, links to and from blacklisted sites, criminal activities, scams, illegal pornography, but at the end of the day you still need a human being to sort through it all. Is this a real terrorist threat to national security or just someone blowing off steam on a blog?”
The work may be all about the subtleties but Makhetha is not. Formed out of the remains of the Hawks after they were disbanded, the Meerkats’ mandate is, she says, really simple: “To bite the heads off snakes in the grass and chew up the dirty little beetles trying to turn up shit and undermine our democracy.”
“Relax,” she says, brushing off my obvious discomfort with a laugh, “it’s all constitutional. It’s not like we’re the Gestapo here.”
Sharing is caring
The truth is that they are more effective. In the age of social networking, sharing is caring and secret policing was never this easy. Whereas apartheid’s Special Branch would have had to embed undercover agents to spy on union meetings, for the Meerkats, total transparency, at least for private citizens, is only one click away. A glance at Facebook events, your Flickr set or your MXit friends list provides information on your known associates, recent whereabouts, political, social and sexual proclivities.
But the combination of Rica, which makes every SIM card traceable down to its GPS coordinates, the Protection of Information Act and the Corporate Responsibility Act, which make corporations legally obliged to cooperate with government demands such as shutting down cellphone coverage in a riot zone, for example, makes their job a whole lot easier. The Meerkats can not only monitor open networks but private ones too, including phone calls, emails and your internet history. They can even track your current location using your cellphone’s GPS and shut down anything they don’t like.
There are rumours that the unit also has a game design arm that creates the kind of silly apps for social networking—the kind that rate your sex appeal on MeToo or your Twitter influence or create photoclouds out of your most popular Tumblr posts.
But when I ask her about it, Makhetha says mildly: “That’s classified.”
Also classified is exactly what happens when a human operator confirms the algorithms. Makhetha won’t comment on the rumours of secret detainments. “That’s not strictly my department but, if something like that was happening, it would be classified.
“But I can tell you what the first steps in the procedure would be from our side. If it’s just someone venting or making a stupid joke about blowing up the taxi rank because the drivers are on strike, we’ll send them a friendly warning to cut it out. But if it’s a genuine offence, say an info terrorist disseminating top-secret documents about tender deals, we’re within our rights to act immediately, to disconnect them from the internet and shut down their cellphone account until the matter is resolved in a court of law.
“We’ve got all this in place with the network providers as per the Corporate Responsibilities Act of 2013. Of course, the perpetrators still get a free and fair trial, but we have to shut down their communications immediately.
“It’s about stopping the poison before it infects the whole system. I guess you could say we’re freedom’s tourniquet.”
The problem, according to critics, is that the tourniquet is not just cutting off the poison but also the circulation of a healthy democracy. One of the most outspoken detractors is Montle Hunter, head of Clear, a radicalised, pro-transparency spin-off of Afri-leaks, which the Meerkats shut down three years ago.
Clear calls the Meerkats, facetiously, “the dream patrol”, as in the only place they’re (probably) not watching your every move. It’s appropriate then that the only place Hunter agrees to meet with me is in a dream world of sorts—in the popular Filipino virtual game world, ShinyShiny.
Hunter appears as a bog-standard cyborg orc, indiscernible from any of the other orcs wandering through the enchanted techno-forests of ShinyShiny. “This is me,” he jokes, “Warts and all.”
The truth is that no one knows what he looks like, whether Montle Hunter is his real name or if he is a he at all or only one person, or the public face of an interchangeable, like-minded collective of people. Hunter operates between the unregulated alternanets and darknets to avoid detection by the Meerkats or the global info-terrorism unit, Int.pol.
In public, he says, he has visual frequency distorters on hand to disrupt CCTV cameras and reveals that Clear agents have fallen back on using old-school spy techniques: “We’re passing handwritten notes,” he admits, a little sheepishly.
“The problem here is not that the South African government is spying on its people. Governments have always done that. It’s that they’re actively suppressing information using the Protection of Information Act of 2011, and I’m not just talking about critical state secrets or leaked diplomatic missives, you know, the kind of real ‘national security issues’ it was designed to protect. We’re talking about withholding basic information that affects people’s lives on a day-to-day level.”
He cites the Vaalwater cholera outbreak in November as a “classic example”. “Here we’ve got a municipal district manager who sees an outbreak of a fatal disease in his area, but he can’t get the information on the water supply to find out if it’s contaminated because it’s linked to a hydro power station, which is classified because it falls under national security. And as a result 981 people died. We’re talking about the basic effectiveness of government to do their job here. It’s self-sabotage.
“There are some things that absolutely should be classified and top secret, like the blueprints of Pollsmoor. But something like the housing lists should be public information. There are still people waiting for housing and their impression is that their position on the list changes from month to month. And they might be right, there might be serious dodginess going down, bribery and backhanders and corruption and illegal tenders, but we simply don’t know, because we don’t have access to those lists because they’re classified.
“And why? Because people tend to get angry about housing screw-ups, which might lead to a riot, which might lead to them blockading the highway and overturning buses and burning tyres, which then becomes a ‘national security issue’.
“The problem is that you can justify almost anything as national security and the guy who gets to decide what should be declassified is the same person who decided it was classified in the first place. So he’s got the ‘yes’ stamp in one hand and the ‘no’ stamp in the other. It’s mental.
“And all this is being sold to us as for our own good. ‘Mama Government and her Meerkats know best—now run along, dear, and write some more concerned letters to the newspapers’.”
When I try to raise some of these issues with Makhetha, she’s very sympathetic. “I can understand that some people have concerns. But I’m afraid I can’t discuss that, it’s — “
“Classified?” I finish for her.
“Your file says you have a short temper,” she counters. “What I can tell you is that we know all about Clear. We’ve got key word monitors set up on most of the major Chinese game servers and we’re already working on ways to embed nanoparticles in paper that will be able to relay the imprints of hand-written notes to our systems. What you have to understand is that this is a global issue.
“As fast as info terrorists can come up with new tactics, governments are working hand in hand to develop countermeasures.”
As she shows me out, Makhetha adds mildly: “Of course you won’t forget to submit the story for pre-approval as per the Media Patriot Act.”
Of course not.