Portnet acquisition: Govt tightens grip on internet communication

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GOVERNMENT has further moved to consolidate its grip on cyberspace and capacity to spy on citizens’ communication devices after acquiring 51% of information communication services provider, Portnet Software, through Zarnet which is wholly government-owned.

Hazel Ndebele

Information technology experts told the Zimbabwe Independent that the acquisition also allows government to implement the objectives in the draft Computer Crime and Cybercrime Bill.

The Bill, still to be presented to cabinet, would allow government through an information technology company such as Portnet to remotely install a remote forensic tool (spying tool) onto citizens’ communication devices.

A remote forensic tool is defined in the draft bill as an “investigative tool, including software or hardware installed on or in relation to a computer system, or part of a computer system, and used to perform tasks that include but are not limited to keystroke logging or transmission of an IP-address”.

Portnet Software was established in 2005 and provides a full range of systems, applications and products (SAP) software services and solutions in Zimbabwe and across Africa. Zarnet is an internet service provider which also offers services to government, but is on the brink of collapse due to financial problems.

Portnet will provide government, parastatals and state enterprises with SAP solutions and services in a move government says will also counter the dominance of foreign-owned SAP providers in Zimbabwe.

Portnet and Zarnet this week announced that government now had a significant controlling stake at Portnet in order to secure itself from potential security risks on sensitive state information.

“It is expected that, with the acquisition, Portnet Software will become the preferred provider of SAP solutions to government, including all parastatals and state-owned enterprises and offer much needed competition in the private sector,” the two entities said.

Zimbabwe already has a law, the Interception of Communication Act (ICA) 2007, which gives government significant powers of surveillance over citizens’ communications.

Hacking or the use of remote forensic tools is lawful in very few countries, and there are a few examples of legislation which appropriately regulate the use of this power in a way that is compliant with human rights.

The development comes at a time government is moving towards forcing mobile operators into infrastructure sharing which would enable government to closely monitor mobile phone operators and the use of infrastructure.

Moreover, government’s desperate bid to buy Telecel through Zarnet and state-owned TelOne’s interest in activating its mobile operator’s licence are all part of the plot to eventually own and control cyberspace, officials say.
However, Econet has been resisting infrastructure sharing.

IT experts say infrastructure sharing would make it easier for the government to operate a signals intelligence, interception, surveillance system, and content filter.

Cyberspace is the notional environment in which communication over computer networks occurs; it deals with everything to do with fibre, and communication storage.

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