This article is part of UPROAR, a Small Media initiative that urges Governments to address the challenges of digital rights in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).
In theory, there are few, if any, restrictions on Internet access in Namibia, which is one of the most stable democracies in Africa and one of the least inhabited nations.
However, recent bold moves to acquire various forms of spyware have posed a dilemma for observers: Are Namibian intelligence agents deftly walking a fine line to acquire digital spy equipment from both China and the Union? European?
Digital surveillance may be underway in Namibia, given the inventory of spying technologies acquired in recent years, especially public closed-circuit television sets and International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) receivers. says Admire Mare, a professor in the Department of Communications at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. The country is not alone as “many countries in southern Africa have been expanding their surveillance capabilities as part of a growing wave of authoritarianism in the region,” Mare told Global Voices.
Frederico Links, associate researcher at the Institute for Public Policy Research, agrees: “Evidence indicates that Namibia acquired sophisticated communications receivers and surveillance capabilities, which have already been implemented,” said Links, who also chairs the ACTION Coalition, which advocates for greater access to information in the country.
IMSI receivers, commonly called “pickers” in the spy industry, are devices that can be conveniently positioned to activate GSM mobile phone base stations to stop encryption of users' voice, video or text calls. All digital correspondence that passes through an IMSI receiver can be collected, viewed, copied, or listened to. With the help of centrally registered SIM cards, firmly checked by the Namibian authorities, an IMSI receiver is a perfect eye within a national cell phone network, says Yasin Kakande, a TED fellow and online privacy watcher from Africa, at Zoom interview with Global Voices.
In 2017, data sets from the UK Department for International Trade revealed that the Namibia Central Intelligence Service (NCIS), the Namibian secret police agency, ordered and purchased the IMSI receivers from the British company CellXion Ltd, which markets “Cellular intelligence solutions”.
In the last decade, the state intelligence police have been very active in the retail market for spy equipment.
The Coalition Against Illegal Surveillance Export (CAUSE) revealed in June 2015 that Namibia made offers to buy an internet spy arsenal in Switzerland in 2013. However, this attempt was rejected when the Swiss government began to curb these kinds of imports, for fear that rogue states could use them to harm local Democratic opponents. Swiss authorities immediately blocked shipments of surveillance equipment and programs to Namibia, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Yemen, Qatar, Malaysia, Turkmenistan and the United Arab Emirates.
In October 2014, Namibia was left out of an ambitious bid to acquire equipment from well-known Italian vendor “The Hacking Team” (renamed Memento Labs after being acquired by another cybersecurity company in 2019). An embarrassing WikiLeaks data breach exposed Namibia as one of the clients and the deal failed. The Italian Government took the opportunity to revoke the permission of the “Hacking Team” to export malicious intrusion programs.
The Campaign Against the Arms Trade lobby group alleges that in 2011, and between 2015 and 2017, Namibia dealt with the Danish company Sys-tematic, which sells specialized knowledge, web-based monitoring equipment and advice to States that They seek “solutions, services and what to do with surveillance, prevention, analysis, risk assessment and crisis management”.
Then there is the elephant in the room, Huawei from China. The company's relationship with Namibia is now over a decade old, the company is credited with the installation of 3G and 4G networks and now, possibly, the 5G infrastructure.
Huawei, probably one of the most enthusiastic sellers of web surveillance technology, is very present in the country: it supplies and repairs devices and infrastructure for Telecom Namibia, the national telecommunications operator.
Together with MTC, a mobile phone operator owned by the Government of Namibia, Huawei has been caught in a technology transfer relationship, especially through its SingleRAN radio access technology, which enables Namibian mobile telecommunications operators to offer multiple wireless services on a single network. Up to two million Namibians depend on the technology provided by Huawei to access voice communication, internet and digital television, thanks to the hundreds of radio base stations and thousands of kilometers of fiber optic lines stationed in Namibia by Huawei.
In all this, “no one is sure if this close relationship has allowed Huawei to sneak onto the Namibian internet as reported at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, where the Chinese giant built a computer network and started, with cunning , to collect data from the shadows ”, Yasin Kakande worries.
It is exactly the top-secret digital control maneuvers by Namibia's intelligence agency that baffle activists: “It is difficult to measure the surveillance capacity of Namibia's internet, given the bleak nature of the budget for the security services and how government-owned telecom operators deal with foreign service providers. Transparency is the missing link in all this ”, adds Mare. “It is a secret space, so the informants will not come to the front to confirm or not the practice”
Observers point out something strange but interesting: when The Namibian, the country's main media, published the article “(Namibia) spy agency receives 217 million Namibian dollars … in three years” (about 12.97 million US dollars) in 2019, observers suspected that part of the money would go to the purchase of internet surveillance gadgets. However, in the national budget these items are often hidden under ingenious headings such as construction, renovations and improvements.
Namibia denies allegations that it is building an internet funding fund to effortlessly check its internal criticism. Charles Siyauya, from the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology, answered a question from Global Voices: “spying on citizens is the least of the execution priorities of any progressive government.” Only a predatory or failed regime can do it. Intelligence protects our country and our citizens from internal and external threats ”.
Namibia, like any state actor, has legitimate needs to use digital tools to keep its peace. It's the secretive nature of authority's digital maneuvers that is disturbing. When purchased in secret, and used without proper independent oversight, surveillance tools pose a threat to fundamental rights and freedoms, such as the right to privacy and freedom of expression.