Zimbabwe’s government has enacted a controversial law that could enable it to spy on any citizen’s cellphone call records as well as text messages.
The government gazetted ‘Statutory Instrument 142 of 2013 on Postal and Telecommunications (Subscriber Registration) Regulations, 2013’ on Friday as the country’s new communications minister Webster Shamu – a loyalist of President Robert Mugabe – gets down to business.
The government gazette states that it is now an obligation for telecommunications companies to have a database of network users and to make those records available to government.
The rationale for the law and the database is to “assist law enforcement agencies or safeguarding national security” and to aid “with the provision of mobile-based emergency warning system” as well as authorising “research in the sector,” says Zimbabwe’s Zanu-PF led government.
But the new law opens the way for government to access subscribers’ phone records upon any request from state security and other law enforcement agencies such as police. Previously, Zimbabwe’s government could only have access to these records when investigating the likes of criminal offences.
However, to enact this measure, telecoms firm have to have a “written request signed by a law enforcement agent who is not below the rank of Assistant Commissioner of police or a co-ordinate rank in any other law enforcement agency”.
“The written notice to be issued by the law enforcement agency pursuant to subsection (2) shall indicate the rank of the official of the law enforcement agent, and the purpose for which subscriber information is required,” reads a part of the statutory instrument under section nine.
The law further states that it will no longer be possible to activate unregistered mobile SIM cards and makes it an offence for subscribers to provide false information when registering mobile SIM cards with telecom companies.
Zimbabwe already has an ‘Interception of Communication Act’, which was enacted in 2007.
This act; however, requires the approval of the minister responsible as well as that of the police and intelligence unit chiefs for the state to intercept any citizen’s communications while a judge will have to determine whether it is a warrantable action.
It is not immediately clear how the two legislations could complement each other.
But the move to approve the subscriber database law comes after the Zimbabwe government has over the past two months forced mobile telecommunications firms to speed up the disconnection of unregistered mobile subscribers.
Telecom firms Telecel and NetOne say they have since disconnected about 200,000 subscribers.
The enactment of the bill also comes as Shamu has taken up the ICT ministerial role.
Experts say he is reported to be a firm believer in the stricter regulation of social media websites, such as Facebook, so as to curb insults against Mugabe.
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