Government is drafting a bill that will give the country’s intelligence agencies and police sweeping surveillance powers.
The new law which is expected to be tabled in Parliament before the 2019 General Elections will legalize a whole range of tools for snooping and hacking by the security services.
Trade and Industry Minister, Vincent Seretse last week confirmed fears of an encroaching mass surveillance state when he told delegates at a business seminar in Gaborone that the envisaged Bill “is going to make life difficult for us.”
Government is already preparing for the mass surveillance project and has initiated discussions with Israeli cellular phone reverse engineers, elite hackers and vulnerability researchers – Cellebrite Mobile Synchronization Ltd – to help build a huge surveillance complex in Botswana.
A Botswana Police Crime Intelligence Branch (CRIB) comprising head of the branch Nunu Lesetedi, Assistant Commissioner of Police Technical and Cyber Intelligence Kealeboga Keeditse and Cyber Intelligence and Forensic Officer Nonofo Dichabe were in Israel March this year to negotiate a cooperation agreement with the Israeli company.
Cellebrite is made up of skilled reverse engineers, elite hackers and vulnerability researchers mostly from Unit 8200, the military’s large signal intelligence unit that gathers data on Israel’s enemies – and likely its friends – and engages in cyber warfare.
Unit 8200’s existence, until roughly a decade ago, had never been publicly acknowledged or identified and its history has never been revealed or reported, other than in snippets. The unit, however, is reported to be part of all Moosad (Israel’s king spy unit) and other Israeli intelligence agencies’ major operations.
As part of the agreement between the Botswana government and Cellebrite, the Israeli company will set up a mobile forensic laboratory in Gaborone to enable local intelligence agencies to scoop up and analyse data from the internet and cellular phones.
Minister Seretse confirmed last week that under the proposed law government will have the legal power to monitor all activities by Batswana on Facebook, Whatsapp, Google and other social media platforms.
“One of the things that concern us as government is gadgets. We are coming with a Bill basically is going to touch on gadgets; what has been transported in those gadgets and what is going through on our Whatsapp,” he said.
Describing the envisaged Bill as interesting, Seretse said “…people will start to think now and say; what has gone through my whatsapp; either you as the originator of it or as being originated by another individual.”
He added that the “the Bill is going to make life difficult for us because we have come to accept some of the things that we know pass through these gadgets which are very private of course and this is what this Act is going to challenge that.”
Seretse further stated that “I just want to warn you that that while technology advances economy there are people who use it for something that is not driving economy so we must not blame technology.
The decision to expand government’s surveillance capability comes after Check Point, another Israeli company made up of Unit 8200 veterans, reported that Botswana was the most cyber attacked country in its list of 117 at-risk nations.
A few years ago, the International Cyber Security Protection Alliance also identified Botswana as a potential cybercrime hotspot which provides “organised cybercrime” with the ability and the hosting capacity to attack western countries.
A report by the African Union Commission has also lists Botswana among the continent’s 10 biggest sources of cyber attacks. The report revealed that in 2016, a total of 37889 cyber attacks originated from Botswana which accounted for 3 percent of all cyber attacks in the continent. Botswana was ranked eighth position among Africa’s ten biggest sources of cyber attacks. The leading source of cyber attacks was South Africa which accounted for 25% of all attacks in the continent with 314, 880 incidents in 2016, followed by Egypt with 149 685 attacks accounting for 12% of the continent’s attacks. With a population of 2, 2 million, against South Africa’s 55 million and Egypt’s 95 million, Botswana is per capita the continent’s biggest source of cyber attacks. Research for the report was carried out jointly by the African Union Commission and Symantec as part of a global forum for cyber expertise, with additional support from the United States Department of State and the Council of Europe.
As part of the plan to expand Botswana’s mass surveillance state, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Justice, Defence and Security Segakweng Tsiane confirmed in an interview with Sunday Standard earlier this year that government was working on the amendment of the Cyber Crime Act among others. She added that the amendment is aimed at aligning the Cyber Crime Act with the Criminal Procedure Act.
The Government is of the view that the current laws are not enough to ensure that criminal offences committed using social media can be adequately prosecuted.
“Last year we amended the Electronic Evidence Act and currently we are working on a draft to amend the Cyber Crime Act. We want the Acts to compliments each other,” she said.
Tsiane insisted that the government was not attempting to stifle freedom of expression or encroach on people’s privacy. She said the government was cracking down on fake news and abuse of cyber space.
“It wouldn’t be a threat to media freedom when the state regulates the social media space. These laws are not for the government but for Batswana. Our Ministry is inundated with issues related to circulation of pornography material and people using fake accounts to defame others and peddle false news,” she said.
She added that “these laws are not for the government because there has to be a complainant. For instance there have been instances where people have complained that they are being defamed, there are issues of character assassination and there is no where they can seek redress.”
Tsiane reiterated that the measures are tailored to protect citizens’ rights following a surge in social media abuse through propagating falsehoods; hence the need to monitor social media.