Africa, a laboratory for electronic surveillance and opinion manipulation

Two years ago, Bishop Benoit Alono discovered that his smartphone had been targeted with Pegasus spyware. Then the Bishop of Togo, accustomed to negotiations between the authority and the opposition, left saying: “I have nothing to hide, but it seems clear that it is dangerous to our liberties and our democracy.” This digital weapon, designed and marketed by the Israeli company NSO, allows access to all contents of the smartphone.

Since then, the data leak has enabled a consortium of journalists and NGOs to view thousands of potentially targeted numbers of Pegasus, which are being marketed by the manufacturer as a tool in the fight against terrorism and organized crime and which has rather been revealed to be a deadly virus for democracy and the rule of law. From Saudi Arabia to Togo, and from Rwanda to Morocco, this technology has been directed against opponents, clerics, activists, and even heads of state.

Unorganized market, without competition

Africa is a client and laboratory for these technologies. In the absence of regulations, regulatory bodies and the protection of digital rights, the continent is the European, Israeli, Asian and Russian continent of digital surveillance and online influence tools. An uncompetitive market where their customers control it. The latter are the states and their ministers, the police and the intelligence services. Once equipped, they can conduct peaceful operations within the limits of legality, which they are in theory the guarantors of.

Thus, wandering the streets of Kampala or Ouagadougou, a spectator who does not pay attention to the white columns topped with high-end cameras does not realize that he is under surveillance. Chinese authorities have used Huawei to deploy these “safe city” systems. The images allow facial recognition and are transmitted in real time to the security services. In times of political discord, arrests are easier. In other countries, protesters are targeted upstream by infiltrating their computers or smartphones. What constitute the “evidence” files of attacks on state security, and justify preventive arrests to stop citizens’ movements.

Influencing the course of events

Other data is collected on social media, stolen through app vulnerabilities, or purchased in cryptocurrencies on the dark web. Des sociétés d’influence et de “communication stratégique” se chargent alors de leur traitement, afin d’amplifier certains messages, d’en noyer d’autres, afin d’influencer les algorithmes et les comportements d’utilisateurs pour le copeser events.

The most telling case is that of the defunct British company Cambridge Analytica, which tested its services during elections in Nigeria in 2014, and then in Kenya three years later, before being deployed in particular in the United States for Donald Trump. Since then, other players have taken over their services and sold them for a few million dollars in countries like Congo or Rwanda. All major political moments on the continent are now characterized by a combination of these techniques of influence and control.

One of the original promises of the technology sector is to develop Africa faster and better. To do this, we must build an ecosystem and encourage startup-driven “emergence”. States agree, not without conditions, to abide by some form of liberal orthodoxy, leaving companies and computer developers to maintain the myth that they will fill their own gaps with regard to public services. It is an over-the-counter contract on sovereign divisions of power that states delegate by allowing companies to regulate the public sphere, and to collect and use data. Infrastructure is also needed: submarine cables, optical fibers, and low-altitude satellites to reach rural areas, which are provided by the digital giants.

Disconnect the Internet if necessary

In this utopia, the political and security realities of the forces that willingly compose are grafted with a “tech-laundering” guarantor of donor funding, diplomatic support and even the highly publicized visits of Jack Ma (Ali Baba), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) or Jack Dorsey (Twitter). Evidence of the tech giants’ ability to engage with authoritarian states, Saudi Arabia has within a few years become one of the major investors in Silicon Valley. It does not matter if the services of these companies are systematically suspended during elections in many African countries. The internet is still seen as an economic threat and opportunity, but it is also a form of increased surveillance, a new territory over which sovereignty must be complete. Security services skillfully arrange their control of cyberspace as a source for collecting the maximum amount of data on citizens and a device for managing the population. Even if it means blocking the internet or social networks and dreaming of a national internet that can be insulated from any outside influence, as China and Russia are trying to do.

It is necessary to point out the African clients, and to denounce the authoritarianism of some heads of state. But what about suppliers? Over the course of thirty years, an industry specializing in online monitoring has developed. These service providers from the crucible of states, sometimes led by former intelligence or communications services, have perfected their capabilities to collect, intercept, analyze and snooze data. They have refined their ability to create profiles using marketing knowledge, or have mastered the art of processing information online.

On the other hand, the West encourages African activists. On the other hand, it authorizes the sale of digital surveillance tools to the forces that oppress them.

In the technological centers from Bombay to London, through Herzliya and Palo Alto, Moscow and Beijing, companies develop ever more sophisticated products, and new threats to individual and collective liberties. It offers African governments an ever-expanding catalog of digital arsenals, with the secret approval of exporting countries. When they don’t get it, they mitigate their responsibility by going through tax havens and channels and middlemen that act as screens.

All violations are possible

The African Internet is in full development, carrying both hopes and fears. For now, he has no choice but to submit to the wishes of heads of state and their trading partners who provide them with the tools to undermine the rule of law. Civil society activists and NGOs are the targets. Their votes are essential to continue the debate on the free internet where users have rights guaranteed by laws. Journalists and fact-checkers, through their work and professionalism, are the guarantors of free and reliable information. On the one hand, the European Union and the United States encourage and support them financially. On the other hand, they authorize the sale of digital surveillance tools to the forces that oppress them. They are unwilling to establish the same regulations for exports in Africa as those applied to their own land. Without a commitment to transparency and democratic oversight of the export of these technologies, all abuses are possible.

Globally, there is no comprehensive governance and oversight body that oversees this sector. Like offshore financing, players in this industry ignore jurisdictions. NGOs and think tanks, such as Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School, are urging states to ban these surveillance technologies and blacklist the vendors. The digital giant maintains the opacity of its algorithms. They refuse to grant access to their data for research. Without regulation, manufacturers, sellers, and subcontractors will continue to make the African continent a digital wild west.

Corentin Cohen is a researcher in political science and international relations at the University of Oxford. Joan Tilwin is a journalist and head of investigations at Africa Intelligence.

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