State surveillance of citizens going unchecked across Africa

Published on 21 October 2021

A new report warns existing laws are failing to protect privacy rights, with governments in Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Sudan overreaching surveillance powers to monitor citizens. With mass surveillance in direct violation of citizen’s constitutional rights and surveillance laws and it says existing legal protections need to be strengthened and citizens equipped to hold governments accountable.

Mass surveillance is being carried out by governments in six countries across Africa with existing laws failing to protect the legal rights of citizens, new research finds. The study Surveillance Law in Africa: a Review of Six Countries by the African Digital Rights Network is the first systematic comparison of surveillance laws in Africa. It is published amid concerns of digital ‘surveillance creep’ as technologies become more sophisticated and more of our day-to-day lives, from banking to healthcare, move online. Many governments have expanded their powers for surveillance and access to personal data during Covid-19.

Despite explicit guarantees of privacy rights in the domestic laws and constitutions of each country alongside international human rights conventions, the study conducted this year, identified that governments are making large investments in new surveillance technologies. At the same time as strengthening technological capability, they were also passing new laws to expand legal surveillance powers. This led to increased surveillance of journalists, judges, business rivals and opposition leaders.

The report identifies Egypt and Sudan as the countries where citizens’ rights to privacy were least protected. This is due to a combination of weak legal protections, weak civil society to hold the state to account and increased state or government investment in surveillance technologies. In contrast, despite the government in South Africa also violating privacy law, the country’s strong civil society, independent court and media successfully force the government to improve its surveillance law and practices.

Six factors causing existing surveillance law to fail

Overall, the research identified six factors that mean existing surveillance law is failing to protect the privacy rights of citizens in each of the six countries:

(a) the introduction of new laws that expand state surveillance powers
(b) a lack of legal precision and privacy safeguards in surveillance law
(c) the increased supply of new surveillance technologies that enable illegitimate surveillance
(d) state agencies regularly conducting surveillance outside of what is permitted in law
(e) current impunity for those committing illegitimate acts of surveillance
(f) weak civil society unable to hold the state fully accountable in law

Dr Tony Roberts, Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, and co-author of the report commented:

“States do need surveillance powers, to prevent terrorist atrocities, but to be consistent with human rights such powers must only be narrowly-targeted on the most serious crime, used when strictly necessary, and proportionate to need.

“Citizens need to be more aware of their privacy rights and of the surveillance activities undertaken by their governments. Legislation can usefully define checks and balances to protect citizens’ rights and provide transparency. But civil society needs the capacity to monitor surveillance practice and hold government accountable to the law.”

The researchers call for legal reforms to be made, including governments incorporating international principles into surveillance law, and defining punishments for surveillance outside of the law. They also call for an end to the commercial sale of surveillance technologies to states proven to be violating privacy rights. The report calls for coordinated action from journalists, lawyers and rights activists to raise public awareness and hold governments accountable.

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