A visual representation of how cellphone grabbers work Photo Mail & Guardian
South Africa – In a move aimed at combating large-scale criminal activities Minister of Justice, Ronald Lamola recently granted an exemption certificate allowing the SAPS to utilise surveillance equipment, including mass surveillance tools. While this move outwardly seems like a good thing, concerns have been raised on how it can be used to infringe upon citizens’ rights.
The term “cellphone grabbers” refers to International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) catcher, which act as fake cellphone towers capturing the communications of nearby cellphones. It has taken almost 13 years for this exemption to be granted and for good reason, explained Jan Vermeulen, Senior Journalist at MyBroadband.
“[The wait] has got to do with our rights as citizens of South Africa. This is essentially granting exemption to the police to violate our rights under extreme circumstances. To make sure that the legal framework is in place, which it isn’t quite. It requires the sign off from multiple ministers. It’s not just the justice minister and the police minister that have to sign off on this exemption. They have to go to the minister of communications and several others before it is allowed because of the potential risks.”
Potential the benefits and risks of the cellphone grabbers
The use of cellphone grabbers presents a double-edged sword. On one hand, it enables law enforcement to combat organised crime, such as drug trafficking and human trafficking. On the other hand, it raises concerns about potential abuse of power. For eg. South Africa’s security cluster has previously exploited similar capabilities to spy on journalists during the Zuma administration.
“South Africa’s security cluster used similar capabilities to spy on journalists they didn’t like. The journalists who found out they were being targeted like this were AmaBhungane … Sam Sole from AmaBhungane learnt through various court filings, to do with legal cases brought against former President Jacob Zuma, that they had targeted journalists like himself using mass surveillance technology before.”
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Collateral damage and privacy concerns
While targeting specific individuals, the use of cellphone grabbers also captures the communications of unintended parties, known as collateral damage. This raises questions about the handling and protection of collected data. Individuals affected by collateral damage may remain unaware that their data has been intercepted.
“Part of the problem of these IMSI catchers is, it’s essentially a fake phone tower. All the cellphones in range of this grabber connect to it. All of their traffic from the cellphones go through it. So even though they might have an interception direction against some drug lord in your vicinity, they are catching your cellphone traffic as well. This is just a really dangerous area that’s ripe for abuse because they do not have to notify you that your data has been caught by the catcher. You are just collateral damage.”
How they will dispose of that data and make sure it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands has not been addressed as yet. Even if you have nothing to do with the drug lord, just because you stay next to them or close to them, your data will inevitably be captured even if the interception direction is only for the drug lord.
Other potential risks associated with cellphone grabbers extend beyond the actions of law enforcement. Hackers could hack the grabbers or even collude with corrupt police officers to gain access to sensitive information. Such actions could lead to identity theft, financial fraud, and blackmail.
In the end, the use of cellphone grabbers for surveillance purposes presents a complex dilemma, involving the balance between security and privacy. While it allows law enforcement agencies to combat organised crime, it also opens the door to potential abuses of power. Safeguards must be in place to protect citizen rights, ensure transparency, and prevent unauthorised access to intercepted data.
Jan Vermeulen explored the intricate details surrounding the Constitutional Court interventions, ongoing reforms and why Lamola could have granted the exemption so close to the upcoming elections with Julie Alli. Listen to the in-depth discussion here: