Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

SA’s major telecoms companies have been asked to reveal how many times they have been forced to share sensitive customer call records. Advocacy group Right2know (R2K) has lodged requests for surveillance statistics from MTN‚ Vodacom‚ Telkom and Cell C under the Promotion of Access to Information Act.

"Recently, the Daily Maverick reported on a legal loophole that allows magistrates to authorise thousands of ‘surveillance operations’ every year‚" R2K said in a statement on Tuesday. This allows the handing-over of customer call records and meta-data in parallel with the country’s official surveillance law. The usual procedure for a law enforcement agency to legally intercept this type of information involves getting permission from a specially appointed judge.

However, a loophole in the Criminal Procedures Act allows law enforcement officials to bypass the judge and, instead‚ approach any magistrate for a warrant‚ forcing a telecoms company to hand over customer call records if they are under investigation.

"That person is never notified‚ even if the investigation is dropped or if they are found to be innocent. A person’s call records contain incredibly sensitive information‚ and needs high levels of protection to enforce the constitutional right to privacy‚" said R2K.

The application was made to get "desperately needed transparency in the use of state surveillance in SA‚ and the role of the private sector. There is growing evidence and growing fears that the South African government is abusing its surveillance powers".

Paul Scheepers‚ a former crime intelligence official‚ is facing charges in the Special Commercial Crimes Court for allegedly using fraudulent warrants‚ and the loophole‚ to spy on a variety of individuals‚ including lawyers‚ police and a financial services regulator.

The telecoms companies have 30 days to produce the requested information.

TMG Digital

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