/ 3 February 2021

State surveillance rife in South Sudan, Amnesty finds

Refugee Camp In South Sudan
Telecommunications and surveillance companies must stop aiding the government’s human rights violations and encroachment on freedoms. (Photo by Tom Stoddart/Getty Images)

Imagine living in a country where you are afraid to speak on the phone because you know the government could be listening in or your private conversations could be watched by government spies targeting dissent. 

That’s the daily reality for many journalists, activists, government critics and opponents in South Sudan, as Amnesty International found out in a new investigation.

The National Security Service (NSS), South Sudan’s national security wing, uses both electronic and physical surveillance to silence critics, leading to a climate of intense fear. The surveillance is so widespread and operates under conditions of secrecy and without any clear legal safeguards, that just the threat of being spied on is enough to make people censor themselves. Amnesty International’s report, the result of a two-year investigation, also highlights the role played by telecommunication and surveillance companies, which enable the interception of phone calls without adequate legal safeguards.

Through telecommunication companies, Israeli company Verint Systems supplied communications interception technology to South Sudanese authorities, including the NSS, at least between 2015 and 2017, despite the high risk that the equipment could contribute to human rights violations.

The South Sudanese government’s use of phone tapping as a tool to intimidate its critics is well documented. Tapped telephone conversations have been presented as evidence in court, and at least one high-profile case was thrown out by the judges on the grounds that the recordings were illegally obtained and violated the right to privacy. NSS agents have also recounted private telephone conversations to detainees in interrogations, and recordings appear to have provided leads for arbitrary arrests and other human rights violations.  

Women human rights defenders face a dual challenge. Women who speak out against the government are often perceived as transgressing South Sudan’s gendered social norms, and many face threats and intimidation both in public and private spheres.

One woman told Amnesty, “If you are a woman, they come through your family to shut you up. They will even ask: ‘Who will marry you, you speak too much, you travel too much. Who will marry you?’”

While many human rights defenders continue to work courageously within the limits of this repressive environment, free speech is fraught with danger.

Activists told Amnesty International that they avoid talking about sensitive topics over the phone, preferring to talk in person or through encrypted apps.

One activist told the organisation: “I don’t know who is tracking my phone, when and where. In South Sudan, they know if you are a human rights person … they can be following your phone conversation, can be checking on your phone every now and then and one day they will turn against you.”

Another activist said: “I’ve gotten to the extent [where] I fear holding my phone, could it be tapped?”

While the lack of government and corporate transparency makes it impossible to know the exact mechanisms used in these surveillance practices, the NSS can likely only conduct communications surveillance with the collaboration of telecommunication service providers. 

A former employee of MTN South Sudan, part of the South African multinational corporation the MTN Group, said that the NSS, through an Israeli company, installed a “box” at their company’s headquarters in Juba in 2013. This could be how the government, including the NSS, gains direct access to data from service providers.

A former employee of Vivacell, a Lebanese company that operated in South Sudan until March 2018, said that the government required all telecommunication companies operational in South Sudan to pay Verint Systems, the Israeli subsidiary of the US Verint Systems, for technology that gives the NSS direct access to its services.

Amnesty International wrote to the four companies included in its report regarding the findings. It only received a response from one company.  MTN Group explained to Amnesty International that MTN South Sudan was required to pay for lawful interception equipment and services to surveillance vendors. MTN said that this was done in accordance with the law and coordinated through the South Sudanese National Communication Authority with all mobile networks operating within the country. MTN did not mention the specific legal provisions or which particular vendor it paid.

State surveillance in South Sudan goes beyond phone conversations. The NSS also monitors social media to target government critics and deploys agents throughout South Sudan and neighbouring countries, penetrating all levels of society and daily life. 

NSS approval is required to hold public events, disabling genuine dialogue. Credible and consistent accounts from multiple sources demonstrate that intelligence agents have infiltrated NGOs, the media, private sector security companies and hotels. The depth and breadth of the NSS spy network creates an environment that infringes on freedom of opinion, expression, and privacy.

The government of South Sudan must stop targeting journalists, activists and government critics through the unlawful use of surveillance including interception of their telephone communication.

Telecommunications and surveillance technology companies have a responsibility to respect human rights in all their business operations, as laid out in the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Providing the NSS with surveillance systems when there is a significant human rights risk or giving them unchecked access to telecommunications networks is a dereliction of the companies’ responsibilities.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.