Pieter van der Merwe

The recent revelation that the state is intercepting the metadata of at least 70,000 cell phones every year should send a shiver down your spine -– and not just if you are a wanted suspect at large. Journalists, private investigators, politicians, political dissidents, civil society leaders –- are some of the first that come to mind.

The Minister of State Security David Mahlobo recently remarked “we are monitoring everything”, referring to external forces he believes are working to overthrow the government. The recent developments and revelations, however, suggest nefarious foreign agents are not the true subject of surveillance.

It would not necessarily be irregular for any state to monitor 70,000 mobile phones, depending on the size of the population in question and the number of crooks residing in that country. But alarms go off when one compares the figures of surveillance applications through the Rica judge –- the individual appointed to grant access as stipulated in legislation –- and the metadata intercepted via a ‘legal loophole’.

According to the Right to Know Campaign –- the organisation that made the revelations –- less than 1000 warrants for interception were granted in 2014/15 by the Rica judge. These figures are made public while the bulk of interception is done through a process which has now only been revealed after a legal process to obtain the information [R2K filed a PAIA application to South Africa’s four major mobile operators]. The state’s use of a legal ‘loophole’ as opposed to a somewhat more transparent process raises serious concerns over its intentions.

It is important to note that metadata does not include the content of the communication. It does, however, include the identities of those the specific individual in question communicates with when such communications are made as well as the location of the device being monitored. The information might be significantly less sensitive but still allows for tracking an individual’s movements, habits and persons he/she communicates with…