The Zambian government has reportedly engaged Chinese experts to install a secret internet monitoring facility in the country. In tandem with this move, President Michael Sata has given authorization to the Special Division of the Office of the President (also known as the Zambian Security Intelligence Service) to monitor the telephone and online communications of anyone living in Zambia if ordered to do so by the Attorney General.
Authorities plan to start monitoring social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, blogs, email services, and “unfriendly” websites. The government has allegedly spent close to K10 billion (about US$1.8m) on the partnership with Chinese technologists.
Independent news site the Zambian Watchdog reports that ZICTA (Zambia Information and Communication Technology Authority) officials asked telephone and internet service providers to allow information technology specialists from both the Office of the President and China to visit their facilities and study their network architecture, in order to identify places in the network where authorities could develop interception capabilities, or a “backdoor” for monitoring. ComputerWorld reports that both Zambian and Chinese authorities have declined to comment on reports about their cooperation.
An anonymous source told the Zambian Watchdog:
They have already started their work […] They have been visiting service providers so as to understand the topology of network. For those who may not know, it (topology) is appreciating the network architecture, things like where the servers are so that they know [where] to install their interception devices.
Service providers said that government intrusion on people’s private conversations had the potential to affect investor confidence as people would be reluctant to subscribe to their networks or speak for long periods on their phones, a change that could affect companies’ revenue.
You know what, when people speak for a long time on the phone, mobile phone company providers make more money. But you will now have a situation where people will merely call each other for setting-up interpersonal meetings to discuss confidential information, unlike in the past when others would even have mobile conference meetings.
The shift will likely bring about reductions in email subscriptions on platforms such as Coppernet, Zamnet, Iconnect, all of which are provided by Zambian ISPs and therefore will soon become vulnerable to enhanced government monitoring tactics. The change will likely encourage Zambians to set up free private email addresses provided by Gmail, Yahoo and others.
Unfortunately, these are not the only restrictive measures that Michael Sata has imposed during his presidency. Soon after taking office in 2011, he ordered his newly appointed Attorney General to exert control over online news publications.
The government also initiated a SIM card registration policy requiring citizens to register their cell phone SIM cards with the ZICTA. The negative effects of this policy were felt during by-elections in some parts of the country recently when citizens began receiving unsolicited messages encouraging them to vote for particular government candidates.
Global Voices Advocacy will continue to cover these policy developments as they unfold in Zambia.