JULY 19, 2010: Phone Interception - Big Brother is Listening

Phone Interception - Big Brother is Listening

SOURCE: The Independent

By Isaac Mufumba

Uganda is becoming a Big Brother state upon the passing of the Regulation of Interception Bill 2007 into law. Many MPs especially in the opposition are opposed to the proposed law fearing that it will be used against them.

"If you want to be among the developed countries in terms of security you must also work on the democracy. Your security has not yet reached that level where everyone is confident," Gulu Woman MP, Aol Betty Ocan told Minister Amama Mbabazi.

The law effectively turns Uganda into one Big Brother House. While the cameras will be off, the earphones will be on. Then the Big Brother will listen into your conversations with your wife, friend or colleague and read text messages and emails to and from your spouse and friends.

Government is to set up a Communication Monitoring Centre with access to all service providers' systems. Failure by providers to make their systems technically capable of supporting interception will lead to revocation of their licences.

Phone users will be registered. A minister or a judge of the High Court will issue warrants of interception and a higher court will arbitrate in petitions and appeals filed by those aggrieved by the interception.

Warrants for interception can be issued where a felony has been or is about to be committed; where there are threats to the national economy, security and public order.

The leader of the opposition in parliament Prof. Ogenga Latigo is skeptical about the law.

"During the last elections Besigye was charged with rape and treason. Many people including the Director of CID uttered many false documents. What guarantee do we have that this won't be repeated?" he asked parliament.

Shadow Minister for ICT, Alex Ocen Penytoo warned that the bill offend the right to privacy. City lawyer, Edmund Wakida of Lex Uganda, says the law is a violation of the constitution which guarantees the right to privacy by prohibiting interference with the privacy of a person's home, correspondence, communication or other property.

Wakida says the constitution does not make allowance for any "lawful infringement" on the right to privacy of communication.

"What happens to vital medical records? How far into someone's privacy is the state going to ply? If there is a gag order on the service providers not to disclose interception, how then will the person aggrieved by the decision to intercept appeal against it? How do you appeal against what you don't know is being done?" he wonders.

Prior to the 2001 general elections, members of the Reform Agenda would often switch off their phones for fear their communication would be intercepted by the state. Probably they had a good reason. In February 2009, Minister Mbabazi admitted before the committee on ICT that tapping of people's telephone conversations had been going on.

How is phone tapping done?

A telephone engineer with one of the mobile phone companies says that when telephone exchanges were mechanical, taps would be installed by technicians, linking circuits together to route the audio signal from the call. Today's digital exchanges make tapping even simpler. It can be ordered remotely by a computer linked to an exchange.

If implemented at a digital switch, the switching computer copies the digitised bits that represent the conversation to a second line.

Security sources says that interceptions have until now been carried out using a device called "IMSI-Catcher". This intercepts communication between the phone within the IMSI-Catcher coverage and the network and subject it to a third party.

Once the mobile phone accepts the IMSI-Catcher as its base station the IMSI-catcher can deactivates GSM encryption using a special flag. All calls made from the tapped mobile phone go through the IMSI-catcher and are then passed on to the mobile network.

IMSI catchers are often the size of a standard briefcase and do not require connection to the service providers' networks. They 'capture' the signals, but since the conversations go onto the airwaves in encrypted code, the gadgets decrypt the signals in order to make sense to the person listening in.

Security sources say the equipment is at times placed in surveillance vans to monitor and track multiple conversations and they can record the times of GSM phone calls for future review. Why then has the crime rate not gone down by security intercepting the criminals' missions on phone?

A security source, who declined to be quoted, said the phone tapping gadgets are limited to the areas covered by the captured base station of the telephone service provider. Where a suspect moves on, the gadget has to be moved too, which is difficult to execute. Besides, interceptions are only effected when suspicion arises. Evidence gathered has also been inadmissible in court. This had made the exercise legally irrelevant and strenuous in terms of equipment and manpower.

During his June 2002 State of the Nation Address, President Museveni said that telephony in Uganda had reached 12.1 million while about 2.5 million people had access to the internet by the end of 2009.

The Status of the Communications Market published by the Uganda Communications Commission in March 2009 says that 1.6 billion voice minutes were used between January and March 2009. This comes down to 17,777,777 minutes or 296,296 hours and 4,938 billed minutes are used every hour.

During the same period, 294 million text messages were sent out. That comes down to 3,266,666 texts per day. Does Uganda have the capacity to monitor such volumes of traffic?

Mbabazi told parliament on July 8 that though the system will allow for monitoring a big number of people, it is only those under suspicion who will be monitored.

Igeme Nabeta says that there is need for training manpower and acquiring the best technology including CDMA cellular monitors, mainframe computers within the IBM ES/9000 series which have high speed processors and extended supercomputing abilities. But at what price will this come?

Prices on the internet indicate that one such computer costs between US$2.45 (about Shs4.9 billion) and US$22.8 million (about Shs.45.6 billion).

Suppose the tapping centre requires 10 such computers and CDMA cellular monitors, it would require between Shs.50 billion and Shs.600 billion. What a price to pay for a Big Brother state.

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