Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Smartphones have become indispensable tools to socialise‚ monitor work e-mails‚ snap selfies‚ browse the internet and chat to loved ones.

But all of their computing power and sheer convenience comes with a caveat — they spy on you. Just ask Eskom CEO Brian Molefe‚ Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Des van Rooyen or businessperson Ajay Gupta.

Their cellphones provided potentially damning evidence to former public protector Thuli Madonsela as she compiled her report‚ State of Capture.

The technology used to keep cellphones connected to calls and the internet as they move from place to place can be used to reveal the whereabouts of a person‚ relationships between people and even allow investigators to travel back in time to listen to past conversations.

How it works

Depending on which cellular network you use‚ your phone is constantly connected to the service provider’s GSM network.

The network signals are transmitted to handsets via various cell phone towers across suburbs and cities around the country.

In layman’s terms‚ the position of a mobile phone can be fairly accurately determined by gathering information exchanged between the device and two or more cell towers nearby.

This method‚ used legally by law-enforcement agencies‚ is nonintrusive and the target‚ or person being monitored‚ is not aware of the surveillance.

A more accurate location-gathering tool is the installation of software on a mobile handset that uses GPS to determine the position of a person at any given time.

Law-enforcement agencies use tracking technology to find criminals and even missing people.

Madonsela used a subpoena to obtain telephone records of some of those named in the state capture report. Using these records‚ her team of investigators were able to confirm that Duduzane Zuma‚ the son of President Jacob Zuma‚ and Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas‚ had a meeting at the Hyatt Regency Hotel on October 23 2015 between 1pm and 2pm.

The same analysis put various people implicated in the state capture report at a home in Saxonwold‚ Johannesburg‚ owned by the Gupta family.

The information stored by the networks and on mobile phones also allowed Madonsela to map the relationship between Molefe and Ajay Gupta and how the "close friends" exchanged 58 telephone calls in eight months between 2015 and 2016.

South African company Vastech SA is a global player in the development of sophisticated technology to — legally — spy on mobile phone calls and messages.

Investigative publication The Intercept reported on Monday that the company, which previously sold equipment to Muammar Gaddafi’s regime to monitor citizens’ via their phones, was now claiming that it could intercept communications on a scale that rivals a government spy agency.

In a 2016 pamphlet produced by Vastech SA‚ the company said it conducted "passive detection" of communications from satellites‚ fixed and mobile phones and fibre-optic cable.

TMG Digital

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