As internet penetration and smartphone usage increases across Africa, digital spaces have become increasingly important for organising political uprisings and opposition movements. In response, several of the continent's regimes have shut down the internet or blocked social media apps. To sidestep the economic costs and global criticism that these online shutdowns incur, governments have turned to digital surveillance technology as a shrewder way to crush all opposition.
In a recently-released report titled "Running in Circles: Uncovering the Clients of Cyberespionage Firm, Circles", the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab — which investigates digital espionage against civil society — details how government agencies in Botswana, Equatorial Guinea, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Zambia and Zimbabwe are using the surveillance technology developed by Israeli telecom company Circles to snoop on the personal communications of opposition politicians, human rights activists and journalists. These seven African countries are among 25 around the world using Circles, which is affiliated with the notorious NSO Group whose invasive Pegasus spyware has been used to target human rights defenders and journalists around the world.
How does it work?
Circles technology is sold to nation states only, and intercepts data from 3G networks, allowing the infiltrator to read messages and emails, and listen to phone calls in real time. Using only the telephone number, a Circles platform can identify the location of a phone anywhere in the world within seconds.
Circles exploits flaws in Signalling System No.7 (SS7), the set of protocols that allows networks to exchange calls and text messages between each other. This allows government agencies to track individuals across borders without a warrant, bypassing international conventions.
In 2019, 3G became the leading mobile technology in Sub-Saharan Africa, accounting for over 45 per cent of all connections. With the faster — and possibly more secure — 4G networks being at least five years away from becoming the standard for mobile connectivity on the continent, Circles' 3G-manipulating technology is ideal for power-hungry African leaders looking to cling to power by spying on critics.
Recent #EndSARS protests triggered a deadly response from Nigeria's state security apparatus, with the government able to infiltrate the movement's organisational structures successfully.
Citizen Lab identified two Circles systems in Nigeria that both began operating in June 2015. One of them was being used by the Nigerian Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA). In 2016, the governors of Delta and Bayelsa states also purchased Circles systems to spy on political opponents and critics. The presence of Circles products in Nigeria goes back more than a decade, when former Rivers state governor, Rotimi Amaechi, became the first Nigerian politician to use the surveillance technology in 2010.
Circles' government clients in Nigeria have a long history of abusing surveillance technologies to conduct mass surveillance of citizens' telecommunications. Femi Adeyeye, a Lagos-based political activist who has been detained several times for criticising the Nigerian government, is not surprised that Muhammadu Buhari's regime is using the invasive spying technology.
Adeyeye cited several cases where Nigerians were swiftly traced, arrested and detained after criticising the government. These include journalists Omoyele Sowore, Abubakar Idris Dadiyata and Stephen Kefas. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has also reported numerous cases of the Nigerian authorities abusing phone surveillance by targeting journalists' phones to reveal and track sources for stories investigating government corruption.
"We are already in the worst stage of dictatorship," warns Adeyeye. "Freedom of expression, media, and political association have been further weakened by this spying technology."
He says that Nigerian political analysts now self-censor when commenting on national political issues, after witnessing the government's infiltration of #EndSARS. "They have seen how people have been traced, their passports seized and bank accounts frozen, and how they have been forced to go into exile."
In Zimbabwe — which has witnessed intense anti-government protests recently — Citizen Lab detected three Circles platforms, with one dating back to 2013. A second platform was activated in March 2018 and is still operating.
As in Nigeria, there has been a government crackdown on anyone exposing corruption. Investigative journalist Hopewell Chin'ono, and Jacob Ngarivhume, the leader of the opposition group Transform Zimbabwe, were detained ahead of anti-government protests last year. Circles technology is facilitating this suppression.
A Circles surveillance system was also found in Equatorial Guinea, where dictator Tedoro Obiang has ruled for 40 years in a climate of torture, extra-judicial executions, arbitrary arrests and the persecution of political activists and human rights defenders. Obiang has crushed protests violently and ignored demands for electoral reforms and limits on terms of office.
Eroding democracy in Botswana
It's not just countries such as these facing protests, or those with a dismal record of human rights abuses, that are spying on their citizens. Even supposed democracies are involved. Botswana is hailed widely as one of Africa's most stable democracies. Yet, the country's Directorate of Intelligence and Security Services (DISS) was linked to two Circles surveillance systems dating back to 2015. The targets were journalists investigating corruption by politicians.
According to Moeti Mohwasa, spokesperson for the opposition Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), Israeli companies have been selling spyware to the Botswana government for years. Mohwasa says that some of this equipment has been used to eavesdrop on opposition politicians and union leaders in the country.
Enabling authoritarianism in Kenya
Citizen Lab also reported a Circles system in Kenya. While the East African nation is often lauded as a strong democracy, critics accuse the Uhuru Kenyatta administration of being an authoritarian regime.
"In Kenya, freedom of expression and media freedoms are under constant threat," says Suhayl Omar, a policing, surveillance and militarism researcher from Nairobi. "The Kenyatta regime has waged a war against constitutionalism and any form of opposition in Kenya."
Omar believes that the Kenyan government relies heavily on surveillance of its citizens to crack down on any form of opposition. "For this, they look to undemocratic and violent states — like Israel — to fund, equip and train their agents and armies for these unconstitutional missions."
Zambia is also a Circles client. In 2019, the Zambian authorities reportedly used a cyber-surveillance unit in the offices of Zambia's telecommunications regulator to pinpoint the location of a group of bloggers who ran an opposition news site. They were duly arrested, with the authorities in constant contact with the police units on the ground throughout the operation. Given its capabilities, it is likely that a Circles system was used to do this.
Should the Israeli government be held accountable?
African governments will justify spying by claiming that it is a matter of national security. The Israeli government, meanwhile, has distanced itself from these anti-democracy purges. Israeli Minister Zeev Elkin denied any government involvement, telling Israeli radio, "Everyone understands that this is not about the state of Israel." But it is.
The Israeli government, through its Ministry of Defence, implicitly sanctions such activities by providing tech firms with export licences. In January 2020, Amnesty International filed a lawsuit in Israel calling for the ministry to ban the export of invasive spying software, as it was being used to attack human rights activists by the governments purchasing them. Last July, an Israeli court denied Amnesty's request.
"The Israeli regime has actively enabled the authoritarianism of Uhuru Kenyatta," explains Suhayl Omar, commenting on the situation in Kenya. Moeti Mohwasa in Botswana agrees about official Israeli involvement. "In recent years, the Botswana government has increasingly been eroding civil rights, and becoming intolerant of political dissent. Israel is aiding these dangerous trends."
Friends with benefits
Although developed by private companies, the spying equipment is also a key part of the Israeli government's diplomatic charm offensive in Africa. By helping African governments cling to power through arming them with the weapons to wage cyber-warfare on their citizens, Tel Aviv is hoping to make more African friends. The aim is to dissolve African solidarity with Palestine, and capture African votes at the UN and so defeat resolutions that are critical of Israel's brutal military occupation. Israel is also trying to find partners to lobby the African Union to grant the occupation state observer status.
In his book War Against the People, Jeff Halper writes that Israel is exporting its expertise in population control gained through its occupation of Palestine, and leading the "global pacification" industry, assisting state security agencies around the world. The danger, Halper warns, is that gradually we will all become like Palestinians, fearful of being tracked and detained for organising a protest, defending human rights or trying to hold the powerful to account.
As repressive African governments continue looking to Israel to help them shrink the safe space for human rights defenders even further, the danger is that Abuja, Nairobi, Gaborone and other capitals across the continent may end up under digital occupation just like Ramallah, East Jerusalem and Gaza City.