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Which African Governments Spy on Technology Users the Most?

By Wayan Vota on September 21, 2017

government spy technology

Governments can legally spy on their residents in many ways, most of them hidden from our purview. However, telecommunications companies, now often a target of government spying, are releasing transparency reports to announce how often governments ask for user information, and how many users the government wants to spy on.

Google launched the first transparency report in 2009, followed by Twitter in 2012, and Facebook and Yahoo in 2013. Vodafone and Orange started to publish transparency reports in 2014, and Millicom started in 2015.

Thanks to a new report from the CATIA Initiative, we now know which African governments were asking for data from these companies over the last few years, and the results are disappointing.

Governments Are Using Facebook to Spy on Citizens

It should not come as a surprise that governments are asking Facebook for its users details. Nigeria, Tunisia, South Africa, Egypt and Sudan lead the continent in Facebook data requests, with Nigeria a standout in the total number of accounts specified in their requests.

As Quartz explained, Nigeria’s actions fit with the government’s record on social media censorship as it struggles to respond to an increasingly vocal electorate that is skilled in social media protests. The military monitors social media accounts for what it deems “anti-government” and “anti-military” conversations and a proposed social media regulation bill would’ve allowed $10,000 fines and jail time for “maliciously discrediting public office holders”.

A question for Nigerians: Is government spying better or worse than the Cameroonian government’s response to anti-government protests – a 93-day Internet shutdown on English-speaking parts of the country?

Now before we get too riled up about Nigeria’s requests, its best if we put them into perspective. The USA made nearly 50,000 user information requests for over 80,000 Facebook user accounts in 2016.

Governments Are Not Really Using Google, Yahoo, and Twitter to Spy on Citizens

The one interesting facet of the study is the lack of attention governments are giving to all other Internet platforms.

Kenya leads Google user data requests, but it has only asked for data on 32 user accounts and Google has only handed over information on 6 of them. Google fully complied with Nigeria’s requests for 16 user’s account data.

Five African governments – Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and South Sudan – have made user information or content removal requests to Twitter, most of which the company has complied with.

No African country is listed as having made a user data request to Yahoo in its transparency reports, issued bi-annually since 2013, even though Yahoo is still a common email provider to West Africans, and is the sixth most frequently visited website on the Internet.

Governments Love Spying via Mobile Network Operators

While the user data requests to Internet companies are relatively small in scope, governments seem to truly enjoy asking mobile network operators for subscriber information.

In 2014, African governments asked Orange for data on 23,020 customers, with the majority originating from the governments of Cameroon and Mali, and doubling in 2015 to 48,819 with Cameroon and Senegal leading all others in subscriber information requests.

Guess who was in the lead for 2016? Yes, Cameroon again beat all other African countries, making over 25,000 requests for subscriber data out of a total 67,718 requests made by African states.

Millicom, a smaller mobile network operator said it received metadata requests for 5,000 subscribers in 2015, increasing to nearly 7,000 in 2016 to support government security efforts.

Which African Governments Do You Worry About the Most?

We started this post with an open question about which government spies on its technology users the most, and looking through the CATIA data, its still a toss-up. Nigerians on Facebook should worry, while Cameroonians should worry about their mobile phones. Those on Yahoo might be able to feel safe – for now.

However, we all are online in many ways. Which ways, and which places worry you the most?

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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2 Comments to “Which African Governments Spy on Technology Users the Most?”

  1. James BonTempo says:

    Which place(s) would I worry about the most? Ethiopia, hands down. With telecoms under government control, there’s no barrier to surveillance. And there’s also no (easy) way to even find out if it’s happening.

  2. Ken says:

    Cameroon. The government’s information requests from mobile network operators increases every year