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Phone Interception:

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Big Brother is listening

Uganda is becoming a Big Brother state upon the passing of the Regulation of Interception Bill 2007 into law. Many MPs especially in the opposition are opposed to the proposed law fearing that it will be used against them.

“If you want to be among the developed countries in terms of security you must also work on the democracy. Your security has not yet reached that level where everyone is confident,” Gulu Woman MP, Aol Betty Ocan told Minister Amama Mbabazi.

The law effectively turns Uganda into one Big Brother House. While the cameras will be off, the earphones will be on. Then the Big Brother will listen into your conversations with your wife, friend or colleague and read text messages and emails to and from your spouse and friends.

Government is to set up a Communication Monitoring Centre with access to all service providers’ systems. Failure by providers to make their systems technically capable of supporting interception will lead to revocation of their licences.

Phone users will be registered. A minister or a judge of the High Court will issue warrants of interception and a higher court will arbitrate in petitions and appeals filed by those aggrieved by the interception.

Warrants for interception can be issued where a felony has been or is about to be committed; where there are threats to the national economy, security and public order.

The leader of the opposition in parliament Prof. Ogenga Latigo is skeptical about the law.

“During the last elections Besigye was charged with rape and treason. Many people including the Director of CID uttered many false documents. What guarantee do we have that this won’t be repeated?” he asked parliament.

Shadow Minister for ICT, Alex Ocen Penytoo warned that the bill offend the right to privacy. City lawyer, Edmund Wakida of Lex Uganda, says the law is a violation of the constitution which guarantees the right to privacy by prohibiting interference with the privacy of a person’s home, correspondence, communication or other property.

Wakida says the constitution does not make allowance for any “lawful infringement” on the right to privacy of communication.

“What happens to vital medical records? How far into someone’s privacy is the state going to ply? If there is a gag order on the service providers not to disclose interception, how then will the person aggrieved by the decision to intercept appeal against it? How do you appeal against what you don’t know is being done?” he wonders.

Prior to the 2001 general elections, members of the Reform Agenda would often switch off their phones for fear their communication would be intercepted by the state. Probably they had a good reason. In February 2009, Minister Mbabazi admitted before the committee on ICT that tapping of people’s telephone conversations had been going on.

How is phone tapping done?

A telephone engineer with one of the mobile phone companies says that when telephone exchanges were mechanical, taps would be installed by technicians, linking circuits together to route the audio signal from the call. Today’s digital exchanges make tapping even simpler. It can be ordered remotely by a computer linked to an exchange.

If implemented at a digital switch, the switching computer copies the digitised bits that represent the conversation to a second line.

Security sources says that interceptions have until now been carried out using a device called “IMSI-Catcher”. This intercepts communication between the phone within the IMSI-Catcher coverage and the network and subject it to a third party.

Once the mobile phone accepts the IMSI-Catcher as its base station the IMSI-catcher can deactivates GSM encryption using a special flag. All calls made from the tapped mobile phone go through the IMSI-catcher and are then passed on to the mobile network.

IMSI catchers are often the size of a standard briefcase and do not require connection to the service providers’ networks. They ‘capture’ the signals, but since the conversations go onto the airwaves in encrypted code, the gadgets decrypt the signals in order to make sense to the person listening in.

Security sources say the equipment is at times placed in surveillance vans to monitor and track multiple conversations and they can record the times of GSM phone calls for future review. Why then has the crime rate not gone down by security intercepting the criminals’ missions on phone?

A security source, who declined to be quoted, said the phone tapping gadgets are limited to the areas covered by the captured base station of the telephone service provider. Where a suspect moves on, the gadget has to be moved too, which is difficult to execute. Besides, interceptions are only effected when suspicion arises. Evidence gathered has also been inadmissible in court. This had made the exercise legally irrelevant and strenuous in terms of equipment and manpower.

During his June 2002 State of the Nation Address, President Museveni said that telephony in Uganda had reached 12.1 million while about 2.5 million people had access to the internet by the end of 2009.

The Status of the Communications Market published by the Uganda Communications Commission in March 2009 says that 1.6 billion voice minutes were used between January and March 2009. This comes down to 17,777,777 minutes or 296,296 hours and 4,938 billed minutes are used every hour.

During the same period, 294 million text messages were sent out. That comes down to 3,266,666 texts per day. Does Uganda have the capacity to monitor such volumes of traffic?

Mbabazi told parliament on July 8 that though the system will allow for monitoring a big number of people, it is only those under suspicion who will be monitored.

Igeme Nabeta says that there is need for training manpower and acquiring the best technology including CDMA cellular monitors, mainframe computers within the IBM ES/9000 series which have high speed processors and extended supercomputing abilities. But at what price will this come?

Prices on the internet indicate that one such computer costs between US$2.45 (about Shs4.9 billion) and US$22.8 million (about Shs.45.6 billion).

Suppose the tapping centre requires 10 such computers and CDMA cellular monitors, it would require between Shs.50 billion and Shs.600 billion. What a price to pay for a Big Brother state.

Comments (10)Add Comment
written by Pawire, July 20, 2010
This wire tap law is unconstitutional and intends to curtail our liberty and infringe on our privacy. Can Amama Mbabazi define to us "someone under suspicion"? If I would like to date his daughter or his wife, would I be a target for tapping??
written by Mafta Mingi, July 21, 2010
Amama is deluded , the little meaningless man is a stupid as those who still believe in his forggeries , there is digital encyription and verbal , If im making a deal I will not talk in strainght Lukiga , I will talk in codes eg Im coming to kampala , may mean that my parcel is safe and in right place , Amama go to hell and rot , we dont need you anymore ,you needed a chance to pass your repressive laws ,Kakama murder and the killer bombs .For oppositin pliz use 3G fones and sims from other countries ,use skype and othe VOIP , and change carriers occasionaly even mantaining the same number
written by Mafta Mingi, July 21, 2010
For oppositin pliz use 3G fones and sims from other countries ,use skype and othe VOIP , and change carriers occasionaly even mantaining the same number and make sure each call appears on ur bill let me give bwino on the next paragraphy .Amama concetrate on ur vote rigging assignment you will get what you are looking , maybe the next president of Uganda

written by Mafta Mingi, July 21, 2010
A secure telephone is a telephone that provides voice security in the form of end-to-end encryption for the telephone call, and in some cases also the mutual authentication of the call parties, protecting them against a man-in-the-middle attack. Concerns about massive growth of telephone tapping incidents lead to growing demand for secure telephones.

The practical availability of secure telephones is restricted by several factors; notably politics, export issues, incompatibility between different products (the devices on each side of the call have to talk the same protocol), and high (though recently decreasing) price of the devices
written by Mafta Mingi, July 21, 2010
One issue that Internet wiretapping is yet to overcome is that of steganography, whereby a user encodes, or “hides”, one file inside another (usually a larger, dense file like a MP3 or JPEG image). With modern advancements in encoding technologies, the resulting combined file is essentially indistinguishable to anyone attempting to view it,
written by Musimenta Joan, July 21, 2010
It's amazing to see how these people always tell blatant lies to Ugandans!! Before the current most gullible and contemtible Ugandan Parliament passed this piece of dictatorial legislation into law, the Mbabazis and his likes were telling all and sundry that the target of this law was terrorism, the more reason they ostensibly failed to detect and intercept Al Shabab's plots to bomb Kampala. Now hardly a couple of days even before their lies have settled down, Mbabazi can have the temerity to indirectly inform Ugandans that all along the intentions of the legislation was anti-opposition politics!
written by Musimenta Joan, July 21, 2010
No wonder that as the Mbabazis were busy harrassing the Ugandan political opposition, the terrorists from the horn of africa were busy planning to murder our fellow citizens enmasse! But whatever they do to ensure that the dictatorship sticks around much longer than it has sofar done, they are simply wasting their time because their time is up as the majority Ugandans are already fed up with them! Heck, we have had enough of their misgovernance for the last 25 years!!!
Turning personal insecurity into National security concern!
written by Lakwena, July 22, 2010
There is no such thing as national security. Mbabazi and Museveni turn their personal insecurity into national security concern. The new law is the epitome of the personal insecurity of the power that be. Why would any sane person spend days and nights of his life listening to private conversations across the country? If paranoia and the fear of fellow countrymen and women is becoming unbearable let these people commit suicide and rest in peace. They were accustomed to being praised by every unsuspecting Tom Dick and Harry. But the longer they cling to power the more scorn they are getting from every Tom, Dick and Harry who have figured out these are a bunch of turncoats.
No rule of law
written by Simon Onyango, July 22, 2010
This is very dangerous because eavesdropping on citizens within their private sphere will most definitely take place without any criminal allegations. This is because the government does not respect the rule of law, and the independence of the institution. This is surely going to be misused and as a Human Rights lawyer, I strongly object to it, not to mention that it very clearly contravenes the constitution
written by luwemba musa, July 26, 2010
phone tapping would not be a bd thing but do we actually need it now in our country.its better we consider the situation wothout it than looking at its worthness.contries that have been prone to terroroim attacks have justifications for it but its still not relevant in our country.Its a encroachment on pepole's privacy and rights assocatied with it.may be a different angle should be lookded at before the same is considered.veside,does it mean its gonna subject all to tapping or just the lay men who have no say because the tendecy will still sta away that some phones will go untapped which is a foreseen loophole in or societry.

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