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Yes, we should be worried about state surveillance in South Africa – a Q&A with Jane Duncan, author of Stopping the Spies

In 2013, former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden leaked secret documents revealing that state agencies like the NSA had spied on the communications of millions of innocent citizens.

International outrage resulted, but the Snowden documents revealed only the tip of the surveillance iceberg.

Apart from insisting on their rights to tap into communications, more and more states are placing citizens under surveillance, tracking their movements and transactions with public and private institutions.

The state is becoming like a one-way mirror, where it can see more of what its citizens do and say, while citizens see less and less of what the state does, owing to high levels of secrecy around surveillance. In this book, Jane Duncan assesses the relevance of Snowden’s revelations for South Africa.

In doing so she questions the extent to which South Africa is becoming a surveillance society governed by a surveillance state.

Duncan challenges members of civil society to be concerned about and to act on the ever-expanding surveillance capacities of the South African state.

Is surveillance used for the democratic purpose of making people safer, or is it being used for the repressive purpose of social control, especially of those considered to be politically threatening to ruling interests? She explores the forms of collective action needed to ensure that unaccountable surveillance does not take place and examines what does and does not work when it comes to developing organised responses.

This book is aimed at South African citizens, academics as well as the general reader, who care about our democracy and the direction it is taking.

Jane Duncan is a professor in the Department of Journalism, Film and Television, at the University of Johannesburg. Before that, she held a chair in Media and the Information Society at Rhodes University, and was the Executive Director of the Freedom of Expression Institute. She is author of The Rise of the Securocrats: The Case of South Africa (2014) and Protest Nation: The Right to Protest in South Africa (2016).

Nick Mulgrew recently conducted a Q&A with Duncan for PEN SA. Read their intriguing conversation here:

Play it to us straight: should we be worried about state surveillance in South Africa? And if so, what’s the most worrying, or potentially worrying, thing we should be worried about?

Yes, we should be. We should be most worried about the fact that state and private surveillance capabilities are expanding all the time. However, there are few controls on these capabilities, which makes abuse almost inevitable. The technology has run far, far ahead of the law and policy, leaving ordinary citizens with rights such as privacy on paper only. In reality this right is being violated on a daily basis.

There’s a comforting lie that many of us tell ourselves – and perhaps this is more a delusion of the 90s-born generation – that, with the end of apartheid, the kind of invasive surveillance that was once trained on activists, organisers and artists went away and the state occupied itself with other things. We think that invasive surveillance is now predominantly the purview of overseas intelligence agencies and, increasingly, companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google, which facilitate much of our speech and work. But instead of being turned off, has the gaze of surveillance morphed and been turned onto the South African population-at-large?

Well, there’s no doubt that we’re light years away from those days when surveillance was used to repress the liberation movements with impunity. We have a law (Rica) that makes it illegal to spy on anyone’s communications, with limited exceptions. Any state agency wishing to tap someone’s cellphone or obtain their metadata, for instance, requires a warrant.

But there’s certainly evidence suggesting that South Africa’s state spy agencies are often sticking their noses where they don’t belong, into the communications of journalists, for instance, in order to uncover their sources.

The Right 2 Know Campaign, which I am part of, has documented many cases of trade unionists and political activists being targeted by these agencies in the course of their activism. State spy agencies have accused civil society organizations and social movements of fomenting regime change, to justify infiltration and surveillance of their activities.

These practices contain eerie reminders of a past we thought we’d put behind us.

Counterintelligence is particularly susceptible to abuses, as it focuses on measures to impede threats to national security.

Intelligence abuses are not peculiar to South Africa, though. In the UK at the moment, there’s an enquiry into ‘spycops’ or members of an elite police unit tasked with infiltrating social movements there. Some of these spycops have been so undercover that they’ve formed relationships with women in these movements, and even had children with them.

After discovering how she’d been lied to by her supposed partner, one women complained, triggering the enquiry.

That is what spy agencies the world over do; they spy, and not just on those who are genuine threats to public safety, but on those who the ruling elite consider to be politically threatening and inconvenient.

Continue reading here.


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