MBALE – The controversy surrounding phone taping is a common phenomena world over; it would therefore not surprise anyone if it happened in Uganda.
Civilized states all over the world permit interception of private communication only for reasons associated with national security and prevention of crime.
African countries do it as a way of spying on their employees, opposition figures, civil society organisations, tycoons and their perceived enemies to establish who and what they are communicating. They, therefore, set aside huge sums of money, train personnel, purchase expensive and state-of-the-art spyware to aid their security agencies in their missions.
Forget about the import of article 27(2) of the Uganda Constitution on the right to privacy, it is a well-known fact that human rights are not absolute and can be put to a limitation as long as their enjoyment prejudices the rights of others, may lead to breach of public peace and order and compromises national security.
That is the very reason why there a number of laws that authorise government officials to intercept, listen in and record private telephone conversations to see if they can pick some useful information. However, the various laws permitting phone interception have also put in place some limitations.
For instance, section 67 of the Uganda Communications Act prohibits operators of communication services from any form of communication interception unless done upon presentation of a court order. This section indicates that court can grant authority to intercept communication after the state has ably presented its case.
But on many occasions, security agencies first tap into the phones, and then run to court for purposes of formalizing the process for evidential purposes.
The Anti-Terrorism Act 2002 is yet another law that allows phone interception. Section 19 (1) allows government to intercept the communication of a person and otherwise conduct surveillance of a person committing an offence under the Act.
Among other things, the law allows interception of the telephone calls, faxes, e-mails and other communication made or issued, addressed to or received.
This however does not mean the Government should have unchecked authority to do as they please under the disguise of implementing their mandate based on the various laws enacted to authorize phone tapping.
The whole process when left in the hands of security organs can become a vice and is prone to abuse. It, therefore, gives a leeway to a security operative or his friends to spy or the phone conversations of their enemies, employees, business partners, competitors, and spouses for eavesdropping purposes not connected to security or prevention of crime.
The issue of tapping telephone conversations by state organs is not new in Uganda and has previously caused a serious public out bust with many believing phone tapping existed way before the laws authorizing the act were enacted.
In the past, Cecilia Ogwal is quoted to have threatened to sue President Yoweri Museveni after the later was reported to have told Members of Parliament that he listened in on a telephone conversation with one of the commanders of the Lord Resistance Army. It is hard to tell whether or not the telecom operator provided the recording or the information incepted using one of the tapping gadgets or whether it was a conference call.
On December 29, 2021, the Observer Newspaper reproduced a story picked from the financial times claiming that Ugandan security used Israeli spyware; Pegasus to hack into phones of embassy diplomats but the attempt failed after notifications were sent out by Apple.
As a consequence, the US authorities blacklisted NSO Group Technologies, the Israeli Technology Company behind Pegasus, which supplied the spyware to Ugandan government. In that same story, it was alleged that a senior government official who preferred anonymity said the government would continue to use all means to protect the sovereignty of Uganda, even if it meant hacking, because everyone does it.”
Pegasus spyware has been reported to be so useful yet at the same time dangerous, depending on one’s perspective.
It has the capacity to access any target phone undetected. While the spyware can infect via a link sent through a messaging service like WhatsApp, it’s also possible for users to access target phones through a so-called “zero-day” exploit, a bug that the device manufacturer may never detect.
When the spyware is implanted on a device, it effectively gives an attacker complete access to the target’s phone. It can read messages and passwords, access social media, use GPS to locate the target, listen to the target’s conversations, and even record them.
Even end-to-end encryption, which is available through popular apps like Signal, does not protect against Pegasus once the phone is compromised.
The London-based Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project in another exposé detailed how neighbouring Rwanda employed the software to tap mobile phones of senior Ugandan government officials, including former Foreign Affairs minister Sam Kutesa, an accusation which Rwanda denied. The report alleged that Israeli-made spyware was also used to monitor phone conversations of director-general of External Security.
Ugandans with connections with the Diaspora will recall that not so long ago, all incoming calls from outside of Uganda would come in through local number instead of the known number of the caller. However, if one tried to call back the number, it would not go through and efforts to check for the owner of the number through mobile money would return negative results. We thought it was an error at the inter-switch before the call could be connected to the local number back home in Uganda. Some-times, the number of the caller would be hidden and would appear on the local phone as anonymous or private. Many of us pushed the anomaly under the carpet, after all the most important thing was the clarity of the voice and the message.
It was until recently when a new vice cropped up through one of the oldest telecom companies in Uganda. While making a call, it begins with a strange tone as if the number you are calling is being diverted to an international line and after a few seconds, it goes back to the normal tone that we are accustomed to before ringing. It is as if that initial tone is the actual divert that triggers recording or alerts the system to first checks if your number is one of those that are wanted before allowing the connection, blocking or sending a signal to the silent listener.
What appeared like a network error has now become permanent but as usual, many Ugandans don’t ask why and the vice goes un-noticed. I have personally called that telecom company which claimed their system had been upgraded but without explaining the kind of upgrade that required changes on the receiver’s tone. At first I thought it was only happening to my phone but I have since used other people’s phones and realized it cuts across, it is the same with the other customer. It is now our duty to mind what we say on phone and who we talk to, the walls of all the telephone operators have been dressed up in-ears to listen and disseminate to a silent listener.
You cannot blame the telecom company as they are under obligations to operate under the whims of the licensing authority short of which their licenses can revoked. The law mandates telecom companies to install hardware and software facilities and devices to enable interception of communications and capable of rendering 24-hour monitoring facilities. The phone numbers of the targeted people can be fed into the machine with the help of telecom companies for easy detection. Security and intelligence operatives are then able tell the exact location of the caller or receiver. The recordings can then be retrieved from the equipment and presented to court as admissible evidence for prosecution of the suspects.
We need to recall that in 2010, President Yoweri Museveni signed into law the Regulation of Interception of Communications into law, giving powers to security officials to listen into private communication if they have sufficient reason to suspect the communication is in aid of criminal activity. Before signing the bill into law, a section of foresighted and right-thinking members of Parliament opposed the idea of giving powers to the Minister of security to issue warrants under the Regulation but instead to a judge to avoid abuse and conflict of interest. The Parliamentarians were defeated; it is the complainant now who signs the warrants for interception.
The controversial law which attracted criticism from media and human rights defenders was passed by Parliament on July 14 and assented to by the President, just three days after the twin terrorist bombing at Kyadondo and Ethiopian Village. Soon after operationalising the law, the government of Uganda through the 2014/15 Budget paper allocated billions of tax payer’s money to purchase a sophisticated phone-tapping machine. It was revealed the gadget had the capacity to record all phone conversations involving a local network and the capacity to bust email accounts of suspects who are under surveillance or who are suspected to have or are about to commit a crime.
Now that the machine was bought and delivered, what do you expect it to do, tap into your conversations whether you or the person you are communicating with is wanted or not, what is important is that even mere suspicion that you may be dealing with is a “wrong elements” is enough to have your number(s) placed on the switch for daily monitoring. No wonder high-ranking Government officials always avoid discussing confidential deals on phone, why because they know what happens behind curtains.
The writer, Mr. Rogers Wadada Musaalo is a Lawyer, human rights activist, researcher, and politician