Making way for Big Brother?

A proposed “Big Brother clause” that allows constant monitoring of all telephone calls and internet traffic has been included in Namibia’s long-awaited Communications Bill, setting off a storm of protest among civil rights groups and opposition parliamentarians.

Critics of the controversial section, which would allow the sort of “warrantless surveillance” pushed by the US administration under George Bush, charged that the new law would flagrantly violate Namibians’ constitutional guarantee of privacy. It was apparently copied from similar Zimbabwean legislation.

“Under the boot of the old apartheid regime, we always had to watch what we were saying over the telephone.
Now it seems this scenario is going to be repeated,” said Norah Schimming-Chase, a former ambassador to Germany and now an opposition MP.

Broadcasting and information technology minister Joel Kaapanda, on whom the thankless task has fallen to push the legislation through Parliament, protested that the controversial section was aimed only at addressing shortcomings in existing legislation.

The clause was merely to address technical shortcomings in law to deal with advances in information technology, he told local media. “The key words in the concept legislation are ‘where any law authorises a person or institution to intercept or monitor electronic communications’,” he said in remarks quoted by Die Republikein.

The National Intelligence Services Act of 1997 forbids any interception of telecommunications, mail or snooping on private premises without a warrant from a high court judge.

Such warrants may be issued for a period of only three months—renewable only for a further three months—if the National Central Intelligence Services (NCIS) can show that other investigative methods have failed.

The Big Brother clause in the draft Communications Bill gives far wider powers. Among other things, complying with regulations issued by the NCIS director-general would be deemed a condition for holding any telecoms or internet media licence.

The interception clause would give NCIS boss General Lukas Hangula the right to specify what equipment and software telecoms and internet service providers must install and run—at their own cost—at “interceptor centres” that will be headed by NCIS agents.

All data relating to origin, destination, contents of and any other information must be stored at these centres and NCIS agents will be empowered to do “anything necessary” to access information, including encrypted passwords and keys necessary to render the intelligence intelligible.

This, a local IT expert said, would require super-computers and massive digital storage space, running sophisticated “packet-sniffing” software at an estimated cost of up to R50-million each.

Only three or four companies, mostly of Israeli origin, deal in such equipment.

Forcing Namibia’s six internet service providers to install such equipment would mean sky-rocketing internet fees, as they would have to pass the expense on to Namibia’s estimated 100 000 users, several local IT managers said.

Kaapanda defended the proposed measures as necessary to combat terrorism and organised crime, but did not say why this was not done by amending the NCIS Act instead.

Namibia desperately needs a new Communications Act because it has no legislation governing cybercrime or other aspects of the internet. Hacking someone’s email is punishable by a R100 slap on the wrist.

The new law could bring order to Namibia’s telecoms sector, where vague legislation has led to open war and conflicts of interest between the fixed-line operator and the two cellphone operators.

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