Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Zimbabwean lessons from the Whistle-Blown United States Prism Programme

By Takura Zhangazha*

The recent  revelations in the Guardian UK newspaper by American whistle-blower Edward Snowden, that his country’s National Security Agency (NSA) has been secretly collecting phone and internet related data of its citizens has correctly sent shock-waves across the world. Particularly in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The levels of debate on the significance of the unprecedented level of a government allegedly spying on its own citizens or those of other countries may however not be as comparatively high in Africa let alone in Zimbabwe.  Both in relation to global outrage or in the defensiveness of local telecommunications or internet service provision companies.

This would not be because the arbitrary collection of private citizens data is not an issue but because it may just not be as high a priority this side of the Equator. To be specific to my own country of origin, Zimbabwe, it may not really matter at all since there is a general perception that our government gets information it wants, whenever it wants from phone calls, emails and internet usage patterns, especially when it is related to politics and not just ‘global terrorism’. 

Its only challenge may be in relation to not having the relevant (or up to date) technology  to snoop around peoples emails and mobile phones. But the will and the intention are undoubtedly there.  And it has tried to mitigate this by passing on the burden of snooping to the private mobile phone and internet service providers through legal instruments such as the Postal and Telecommunications Act and the Interception of Communications Act. For now, it however needs a warrant to get the private conversations and correspondences of citizens for use in legal prosecution.  At least formally so. We do not know what data it is collecting about us and whether it is legal. But given the example of the Prism programme in the USA, our government will probably want to fine tune whatever version of the same it has in place. Until such time a whistle-blower informs the media and the public. 

But apart from the ‘big brother’ state that we might have in Zimbabwe, the developments in the West are important in so far as they offer us a chance to reflect on our own internet and telephony usage vis-à-vis government policy and business models. I am sure that our national mobile telephony and internet service/access providers will be the first to state that they would never permit our government to do anything similar to what has occurred in the USA. That would be only if they were keen on democratic values as opposed to profit. 

The more urgent matter however is the fact that Zimbabwean society, while not being as connected via the internet as that of the USA, must also have a debate as to how it tackles the challenge of freedom of expression, individual privacy and new information communication technologies (ICTs).  This is because either way the inter-connected and ubiquitous phenomenon that is mobile internet is coming to all of Zimbabwe’s citizens. 

It may cost more now, but invariably it will get cheaper and because in economic parlance, our market is small, it will diversify in use and societal import sooner rather than later.  And government will want to control it not just in order to raise revenue as it does when re-licensing mobile telephone companies, but to manage political and social discourse in a partisan direction. 

This is however a debate that has had limited little takers within the ambit of placing ICTs in direct correlation to freedom of expression, access to information and the protection of privacy. The new Zimbabwean constitution though recognizing all of the above cited in its bill if rights has the overarching inference of the same being violable in relation to national security, public interest as well as public health in Section 86 of the new constitution. This, apart from a lack of the citation of the word ‘terrorism’, is a framework that will continue to give the government (and the information industrial complex) leeway to access individual citizens phone and internet records until such a time a court or act of parliament prevents it. 

When this framework is analyzed further, the political culture that informs it is more to protect the state than to promote either freedom of expression or the citizens right to privacy within the context of ICTs and their usage.  It is also a culture that has sought to look at ICTs from ‘safe usage’ perspectives such as development paradigms as the one that must be most promoted. And in part this is why our government’s ICT policy has tended to remain non-responsive to the massive technological advances in the same field and within the national context. 

The major challenge and lesson that the NSA Prism spying scandal has for Zimbabwe are that we have to manage our integration into the World Wide Web with greater caution and with a firm understanding of the democratic significance of the triumvirate rights of freedom of expression, access to information and the right to privacy. While this must be done taking into account lessons learnt from other countries (such as the USA), our pretext must also be contextual to our societies needs and with particular emphasis on our current freedom of expression and access to information socio-political deficit. 

Whereas the ‘whistle blowing’ organisation Wikileaks’ impact on our politics was much more direct (and more political), Edward Snowden’s revelations impact on us in relation to our own democratic values and principles. Its not so much what has occurred in the latter's country, but what will most likely occur in our own that is even more important.

*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (