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EXPOSED: How police spy on Kenyans’ phone calls and texts

A damning report by UK-based firm, Privacy International (PI) has unearthed how Kenyan security agencies intimidate telecommunications companies to spy on citizens in the name of counter-terrorism operations.

The report released on Wednesday shows the security agencies, including the National Intelligence Service (NIS) and the police, carry out communications surveillance without oversight and outside of the procedures required by Kenyan laws.

TERRORISM AND ETHNIC VIOLENCE

The government cites the threat of terrorism and the ethnic violence following the 2007 elections as the main reasons justifying stricter regulations on speech and closer surveillance of Kenyans’ communications, according to the report.

“The National Intelligence Service (NIS) intercepts both communication content and acquires call data records without warrants to gather intelligence and prevent crime, and police agencies acquire communications data with warrants to prepare criminal cases,” the report says.

“In practice, if not in law, Kenya’s surveillance regime appears bifurcated. They spy first then make it proper.”

Police spokesman Charles Owino did not respond to our calls and request for comment on the report.

PI sources confirmed NIS presence in “operationally important” areas such as Mandera and Mombasa, where phone numbers of interest will ‘be flagged’, notifying the NIS system when they are engaged in a call.

“Once we get a red light on this particular person we try checking contents of the conversation. If it’s trash we discard but if it’s of interest, we make a move,” said one NIS agent interviewed by PI, adding that targets are usually unaware of the operation.

NO COURT WARRANTS

A police officer from the Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) told PI that they do not have to seek court warrants to obtain information from the telecoms firms.

“If it is ‘just’ for intelligence then warrants are not sought… for the sake of investigations, the Directorate of Criminal Investigations  (DCI) officer attached to Safaricom will just give it to you… when you take someone to court, you have to make it proper now,” the officer said.

The report says that telecommunications operators end up handing over their customers’ data as they “largely feel that they cannot decline agencies’ requests, in part due to the vagueness in the law and industry regulations”.

A Communications Authority of Kenya official interviewed by PI confirmed the account, saying the telecoms operators risked getting their licences revoked if they do not comply.

Safaricom chief executive Bob Collymore, in a response letter to PI, however, said that the firm only provides information as required by courts and upon receipt of relevant court orders.

“We believe that customers have fundamental right to privacy… ensuring that right is respected is one of our highest priorities,” said Mr Collymore.