BY TAURAI MANGUDHLA
Technology evolves and inevitably advances. With these changes come the responsibility of use and fears are rife among experts that the Zanu PF government, known for snooping on unsuspecting citizens and using all manner of force and other tactics to keep a hold on power, will use a soon-to-be-unveiled Telecommunication Traffic Monitoring System (TTMS) to spy on citizens.
As previously reported by this publication, the TTMS is at the centre of a storm with some top government officials preferring it be awarded to Hong Kong-based N-Soft.
The TTMS is a revenue and tax compliance monitoring tool which can also be used to create a level playing field in the tech industry and generate US$10 million more in monthly taxes from the industry.
While the winning bidder, Spanish-based Global Voice Group (GVG), insists that the system cannot be abused by governments or administrators, research proves otherwise as these systems can indeed be abused and the temptation is just too much to resist, especially as the country approaches another make-or-break harmonised election set for 2023, just 24 months away now.
Alexander Maune, a research associate at Unisa’s College of Economics and Management Science and Competitive Intelligence and Big Data analytics consultant, said Zimbabweans would be in danger of being spied on by their government once the TTMS is in place.
“Spying is one of the oldest professions in the world. It existed since time immemorial and countries have been spying on one another to gain economic advantage and this was called economic espionage,” Maune, who is also a Talmudic and Zoharic scholar, said.
“Even companies do that in what is now known as competitive intelligence, although this is legal in a sense. But is there anybody who is accepting responsibility? The world over no one seems to accept responsibility.”
He said currently, the media is awash with news of state agencies spying even on presidents, that is, listening to their calls with the American National Security Agency recently having been accused of spying on the European Union leaders, but they have denied the accusations.
Maune also referred to a report by investigative journalist Steve Stecklow on how a Chinese firm is helping Iran to spy on citizens.
All these reports, he said, point to the fact that it is possible to spy on citizens especially during this era.
“Technological developments have helped governments and their agencies to gather information using electronic gadgets. If it’s possible for hackers to penetrate systems that they don’t own or didn’t develop, then it’s pretty easy for governments to gather information they want through systems like the TTMS,” Maune said.
He warned these systems give some signalling messages which can be used for illegitimate purposes such as tracking, monitoring or intercepting communications.
“In some jurisdictions governments seek legal permission to lawfully intercept these communication systems,” Maune said.
“There is a need to ensure our institutions are independent, the intelligence, judicial, military, etc. as a remedy towards such fears. In this era of technological advancement, our biggest threat will be from hackers as cyber warfare intensifies. Nobody is really safe and it’s high time we protected our citizens and companies than to expose them to the serious danger out there. Every move we take must be calculated and well thought out.”
ICT blogger Toneo Rutsito said operators must be actively involved in the process and they should be raising red flags, if any, about the government’s intentions.
“My only issue is about what the operators are saying, they have been quiet. Operators should be raising questions because the privacy of their subscribers is at stake and right now we don’t know how much the system has access to except what is on paper, that it monitors revenues and traffic, and the operators and their engineers should be telling us if that will be the real case and at what layer the system will have access on their platforms,” Rutsito said in a telephone interview.
GVG’s technical director Laurent Sarr allayed all fears the system will be used to spy on citizens.
“The platform is signalling based. It collects telecommunications statistics from what we call ‘signalling’ in the telecommunications industry. A signalling is the management or control of information exchanged between telecommunications nodes before, during and after any communication (mobile call, landline call, internet usage, data messages or calls) in the network,” Sarr said through GVG marketing director Clara de las Heras.
“It only contains the statistics of the communication and is carried out in channels totally different to the communication channels carrying voice content.”
Sarr said by tapping the signalling channels the platform did not have any means to access the content of the communication, meaning it did not allow the user, being either the regulator or GVG, to listen to any conversation or read any content.
He said the purpose of the system was not to spy, but to improve tax computation, regulatory compliance monitoring and enforcement.
In addition, Sarr said, the regulatory authority in charge of the implementation and the operations of the platform were not law enforcement agencies and did not have the mandate and required equipment to build and manage an infrastructure to tap into the content of the communications.
“The platform only enables the regulatory authorities to automate and streamline the regulatory monitoring of the sector in terms of SLA compliance, quality of service, security, and other critical aspects,” he said.
“This brings important benefits to the consumers as it dramatically improves the reactivity and effectiveness of the authorities whose role is ultimately to protect them and to promote a safe and inclusive mobile and digital ecosystem.
“It also benefits the industry itself by creating a level playing field that is well governed by a data-driven regulatory framework.”