Al-Shabaab orders number changes, as Kenya tops Africa in requesting users’ data from Google
SIGNS that electronic surveillance is catching on in Africa recently came from an unlikely source – the Somalia extremist militant group Al Shabaab.
Few blacklisted organisations in Africa run as slick a media machine as Al-Shabaab. Concerned that they were under surveillance, the group last month ordered its members to change their mobile phone numbers. Towards the end of last year, the Shabaab banned its key members from using smartphones.
Outside Africa, governments have already been very aggressive in ferreting out hitherto anonymous digital users and activists. Last year Google received 53,356 requests for user information, a 26% increase on 2012.
Over the last four years, the Internet giant says such requests are up 120%.
In Africa, Kenya had the most requests for such information, lodging in eight demands in the last half of the year. In the first half of the year it did not lodge any requests. Eight is low by global standards, but stands out in a continent where most state bureaucrats probably wouldn’t even know where to begin to make such requests.
Google says it complied with 63% of Kenya’s requests, either wholly or partially.
Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria and South Africa made two requests apiece for user information, which were all rebuffed. All the requests were made in the latter half of the year; before that no other African country had made any request.
Google began publishing its Transparency Report in 2009. With data for the first half of this year due anytime, it will be interesting to see if any requests came from countries such as Zimbabwe, which has been recently treated the world to a blogger identity saga.
A few weeks ago Zimbabwe’s government dropped a local bombshell—it said it had unmasked the shadowy political blogger calling himself Baba Jukwa.
Baba Jukwa had been sensationally leaking embarrassing details of fraud, corruption and abuse of office in the ruling Zanu-PF party, much to the ire of President Robert Mugabe and aides.
Besting Mugabe and Tsvangirai
It was suspected that the popular blogger was a Zanu-PF insider, or even perhaps a group of writers posing as Baba Jukwa. Last month, the editor of the state-controlled Sunday Mail newspaper Edmund Kudzayi and his brother Philip were arrested for being behind the profile, which now has 409,000 followers on Facebook (more than Mugabe and Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai combined, with 127,000 and 137,000 respectively).
The two are out on bail even as the drama continues— another journalist also suspected by police of running the profile, Mxolisi Ncube, told South African radio two days ago that Baba Jukwa will only make himself known “when it is safe to do so”.
With about a dozen people under investigation for running the mystery Facebook page, the Kudzayi brothers may end up being cleared. But it isn’t the first time that an online persona has run afoul of authorities on the continent.
Mid last month, Kenya’s police reportedly unmasked the man behind a “fake” Al-Shabab Twitter account that had been used to claim responsibility for various attacks in coastal Kenya, with the latest being massacres at Mpeketoni and nearby villages in which over 70 people were killed.
According to police, Ishmael Omondi had been using the Twitter handle @HSMPress to claim responsibility for attacks in Kenya. Al-Shabaab have used a similarly-named handle or variants, most famously during the Westgate attack in Nairobi last year.
Since the Arab Spring three years ago, social media has been heralded as the ace card of today’s opposition and civil organisations, with grassroots movements all over the continent finding it the perfect platform to organise, protest and complain on Twitter and Facebook.
Anonymity has always been a big part of protesting against “The Man”, from the masked avengers in comic books to surreptitious leaflet distribution in neighbourhoods and student hostels. For a while, it seemed that dictatorships all over the world had finally met their match in real, organised people power.
Stumped governments also tried to play by the rules, with Google reporting a global rise in requests by law enforcement agencies to take down content from its services, with nearly 4,000 requests in the first half of last year.
Still old school
The majority of reasons centered on defamation, and privacy, but there has also been a rise in citation of government criticism, hate speech and national security.
However, international rights campaigners are worrying that authoritarian governments everywhere are finally getting tech-savvy too.
Human Rights Watch reports that Ethiopia’s government is one of Africa’s most tech-repressive. Telecoms is in the hands of one company, the government-owned Ethiopia Telecommunication Corporation, and authorities widely engage in surveillance and censorship, blocking pro-democracy websites, and scrambling radio frequencies. It also uses deep packet inspection—a kind of online fingerprint analysis also used by censors in China, Iran and Kazakhstan.
Government actions, however, needn’t even be top end tech like digging into what people are doing deep inside the Internet: In the Central African Republic, authorities last month banned the good old SMS in an attempt to stop violent protests in the capital Bangui, part of a wave of violence that’s been sweeping the country for more than a year.
It looks like for Africa’s bloggers, they can run but now can’t hide—and this applies to both the good and bad guys.
Source: M&G Africa