SA’s spooks spying illegally?

2017-01-15 06:01
Research suggests that most performance appraisal systems do not work well. (iStock)

Research suggests that most performance appraisal systems do not work well. (iStock)

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Cape Town - South Africa’s spies are intercepting millions of cellphone calls, SMSes and other communications, despite the fact that only a few hundred warrants have been granted authorising such action.

Judge Yvonne Mokgoro, the judge appointed to adjudicate warrants for the interception of communications, says in her latest annual report that she rejected 10 of the 348 applications for warrants by the State Security Agency (SSA), while none of the police’s 386 applications was rejected.

This raises questions about the degree to which our spooks may be illegally spying on South African citizens.

Approve warrants

These seemingly contradictory figures emerge from the annual report of the joint standing committee on intelligence (JSCI), the committee which is supposed to exercise oversight over the intelligence services on behalf of Parliament, but does so mostly behind closed doors.

The JSCI quietly tabled its 2015/16 annual report in December. Mokgoro’s 2014/15 annual report is included as part of the JSCI’s report.

Mokgoro is the judge appointed to approve warrants in terms of the Regulation of Interception of Communications Act (Rica).

The SSA, police, army, Financial Intelligence Centre and military intelligence must obtain warrants from the “Rica judge” for permission to intercept conversations, ­access to premises to install surveillance equipment and for the ­recording of cellphone calls, SMSes and other metadata, such as the numbers from and to which calls are made; the ­duration of the ­conversation and the location of the participants.

Murray Hunter of the Right2Know campaign said any judge could sign warrants to obtain conversation and metadata from cellphone companies, as long as they were older than 90 days.

According to the JSCI’s 2009/10 annual report, Advocate Brian Koopedi, former director of the SSA’s Office for Interception Centres, told the JSCI in February 2010 that the office handled about three million interceptions between 2006 and February 2010.

But in the same time period, only 826 interception ­orders were granted by the Rica judge’s office.

However, South Africa only has a few hundred other judges and signing millions of warrants would have kept them fairly busy.

Millions of warrants

Approached for comment, SSA spokesperson Brian ­Dube said the person who could answer questions was still on holiday.

Professor Jane Duncan at the University of Johannesburg’s department of journalism, film and television said a single warrant could include 50 or more individuals.

A former spy boss, who spoke to City Press’s sister newspaper Rapport, said the difference between Koopedi and the Rica judge’s figures sounded “completely incorrect.

“Even if measures were sharpened during the Soccer World Cup in 2010, millions of warrants were not issued”.

Another source of concern for the JSCI is the SSA’s ageing equipment and sparse budget.

According to Treasury’s medium-term strategic framework, “financial intelligence and state security” only has R5 billion allocated to it.

The former spy boss said: “The ministers know that if the spies get new equipment, they [the ministers] will also be spied on.”

Mokgoro said in her report that it was cause for concern that the public believed “some law enforcement agents and/or officials” abused their interception powers to “advance their own interests”.

Moreover, she said it was almost impossible to measure the impact that communications interception had on crime fighting.

Big secret

Duncan said the Americans released a complete report of all their intelligence activities, which included the ­average cost of each interception, “thus the resources allocated to each interception, as well as the outcome, can be measured”.

How South Africa’s intelligence budget is spent is, however, such a big secret that even the JSCI and the Auditor-General are kept in the dark.

The Auditor-General said in the JSCI report that ­oversight over intelligence’s finances was insufficient, ­because he did not have access to all the necessary ­documentation. – Rapport

Read more on:    state security agency

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