Unites States President Donald Trump’s powerful Executive Order, the “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States“, issued at the end of January, jeopardizes the privacy and digital rights of U.S.-based Zimbabweans.
While most at-risk Zimbabweans based in the U.S. are shielded from Robert Mugabe’s brutality, they must now content with a “generous” host country that no longer guarantees their right to privacy. Section 14 of the Trump’s order states:
Agencies shall, to the extent consistent with applicable law, ensure that their privacy policies exclude persons who are not United States citizens or lawful permanent residents from the protections of the Privacy Act regarding personally identifiable information.
Basically, the personal information of U.S.-based Zimbabweans who aren’t U.S. citizens or permanent residents will no longer be protected under the U.S. Privacy Act. The proposed change is radical and backward-looking. According to Michael Geist, the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, prior to Trump’s Executive Order, the U.S. had made significant efforts to extend privacy protections to non-U.S. citizens and non-U.S. permanent residents. During a recent appearance on TV Ontario’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin programme, Geist said:
With the simple effort of a pen signing that Executive Order, Trump rolled all of that back saying that there should be no presumptions for privacy protections for people that didn’t strictly qualify under the law. And that quite clearly would affect Canadians like it would millions and billions of other people from around the world.
In a recent blog post, Geist argued that Trump’s Executive Order has “enormous implications for the privacy of everyone living outside the United States”. Wherever we are in world, we can’t escape growing state surveillance. The NSA’s mass surveillance programmes are legendary. So is China’s Great Firewall.
Computer Crime and Cyber Crime Bill
Zimbabweans must now content with the Mugabe regime’s emerging “digital authoritarianism”. In the article,”Authoritarianism Goes Global: Cyberspace Under Siege,” published by Journal of Democracy in 2015, Ron Deibert, the director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, argues:
Far from being made obsolete by the Internet, authoritarian regimes are now actively shaping cyberspace to their own strategic advantage.
In the past few years, the Mugabe regime has been busy creating a digital surveillance infrastructure and tools that threaten human rights activists, political party campaigners, civil society organizations, lawyers, journalists, and other at-risk Zimbabweans. The regime’s “Computer Crime and Cyber Crime Bill” is one such tool. First introduced in August 2016, the bill threatens the open Internet, democracy, human rights, and free flow of information. It threatens Zimbabweans’ privacy rights, which are guaranteed under section 57 of of the country’s 2013 constitution.
The bill was initially marketed as an anti-hacking law for the digital age. But a draft version of the bill reveals the Mugabe regime’s desire to criminalize on and offline activism, and accessing computer systems. Quote:
A Bill for An Act to criminalize offences against computers and network related crime; to consolidate the criminal law on computer crime and network crime; to provide for investigation and collection of evidence for computer and network related crime; to provide for the admission of electronic evidence for such offences, and to provide for matters connected with or incidental to the foregoing.
There is in Mugabe’s proposed cybersecurity law a chilling reminder of the U.S. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), which was used to unfairly prosecute programmer and Internet activist Aaron Swartz until he took his own life in January 2013. Zimbabwe’s future cyber security law also proposes the creation of a Computer Crime and Cybercrime Management Centre dedicated to the interception of Zimbabweans’ communications, and seizure of computers and mobile communications devices.
The ruling Zanu PF-controlled legislature will likely rubber-stamp Zimbabwe’s cybercrime Bill before the 2018 elections. Once it becomes law, it will join a growing list of draconian laws, most of which seek state control of the flow of information. The Public Order and Security Act (POSA), introduced Zimbabwe in 2002 and amended in 2007, granted the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) the power to disrupt public protests, and the “powers of stopping and searching”, all in the name of maintaining security and “public order”. The Posts and Telecommunications Act of 2000, Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPA) (2002), and the Interception of Communications Act (ICA), enacted in 2007, allow the government to intercept communications.
The ICA boosted the surveillance powers of the military, police, and Central Intelligence Organization (CIO), Mugabe’s dreaded secret police. It even granted surveillance powers to government ministries and agencies such as the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority and the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ). ICA coopted telecom companies and Internet service providers (ISPs) into the government’s surveillance project. Under the act, ISPs must “provide a telecommunications service which has the capacity to be intercepted”. According to Freedom House’s 2016 Freedom on the Net report, ICA “established a Monitoring of Interception of Communications Center that has the power to oversee traffic in all telecommunications services and to intercept phone calls, emails, and faxes under the pretext of national security, though it is uncertain whether the center is operating.” The proposed centre will be the “sole facility through which authorised interceptions shall be effected.”
Before being expelled from the ruling Zanu PF party in 2014, Mugabe’s former security minister, Didymus Mutasa, claimed that the government “sees everything,” including what happens in Zimbabweans’ bedrooms. Mutasa, who presided over the CIO, reportedly said: “No one can hide from us in this country.”
In 2016, POTRAZ confirmed that members of Zimbabwe’s growing army of Internet-savvy freedom fighters “can easily be identified” by the all-seeing surveillance state. According to the agency: “All sim cards in Zimbabwe are registered in the name of the user. Perpetrators can easily be identified.”
Earlier this year, spooked by Zimbabwe’s burgeoning digital authoritarianism, I imagined a permanent grassroots movement and network of Zimbabwean Internet freedom fighters dedicated to defending privacy and digital rights. I launched The Zimbabwean Progressive, an independent publication dedicated to producing fearless, progressive, adversarial, unapologetic and activism-oriented journalism situated right at the intersection of politics, technology and human rights.
This article is part of The Zimbabwean Progressive‘s “Zimbabwe Surveillance Self-Defense” initiative, whose main pre-occupation is in-depth, comparative and evidence-based independent journalism on Zimbabwe’s ever-evolving surveillance and digital authoritarianism. The initiative unmasks Zimbabwe’s key surveillance organizations, practices and information control laws. It brings safe communication technologies, strategies and practices to the doorsteps of Zimbabwean activists, rights defenders, journalists/bloggers, and ordinary Zimbabweans who wish to defend themselves and their families, friends and communities against government surveillance.
Obert Madondo is an Ottawa-based blogger, activist, photographer, digital rights enthusiast, former political aide, and former international development administrator. He’s the founder and editor of these blogs: The Canadian Progressive, Zimbabwean Progressive, and Charity Files. Follow him on Twitter: @Obiemad
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