Algorithmic surveillance, is the use of computer programs to identify data of interest from a population. Algorithms are recipes for the internet, and are mostly used in search engines, spam filters, video games, recommendation engines, social media, news feeds and maps. They are often invisible, and have divided opinion, with some believing that they will be of benefit to humans and society, while others worry that it will be the opposite.
Opponents of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s regime said, the fact that the internet can, through algorithms, be used to almost read peoples minds means there is risk for political and economic manipulation, including lack of privacy and self-determination.
According to intelligence sources working at the E-Government department or unit, which is basically a branch of the President’s Office, the Chinese are the backbone of the surveillance project, and have Artificial Intelligence (AI) firms that have signed agreements with Mnangagwa’s government, to enable Harare capabilities in setting up massive real-time video surveillance, facial recognition technology for the whole population, including other biometric identification programs.
“Zimbabwe is being used as an experiment for algorithmic surveillance in Africa and your government is receiving all the funding they need from big technology companies to implement trials of the system,” said a diplomat who represented a Scandinavian country in the capital before recently being moved to South Africa.
“There is a lot of business and money to be made. Forget about privacy and violation of human rights. Welcome to the brave new world. Zimbabwe will be used as a case study and template for other nations in Africa to follow suit. China, Japan and Iran are involved, and they will obviously get lucrative contracts for their firms to do business with Zimbabwe.”
In March 2018, the Zimbabwean government signed a strategic partnership with the Gunagzhou-based startup CloudWalk Technology to begin a large-scale facial recognition program throughout the country. The agreement, backed by the Chinese government’s Belt and Road initiative, will see the technology primarily used in security and law enforcement and will likely be expanded to other public programs, according to China’s Global Times daily tabloid newspaper.
“The Zimbabwean government did not come to Guangzhou purely for AI or facial ID technology, rather it had a comprehensive package plan for such areas as infrastructure, technology and biology,” CloudWalk CEO Yao Zhiqiang told the newspaper.
Also in August last year Mnangagwa gave the greenlight to another Chinese company, Hikvision, to start mounting high-tech surveillance cameras in the streets of Harare ostensibly to curb road accidents and crime.
“We must, as we move forward, be pro-active, bold and seek to chart new frontiers in our development,” Mnangagwa said during a launch ceremony of Hikvision’s security products.
“Let us all within our respective fields create a deliberate environment where talent is supported and promoted. Our quest to modernise the economy requires high-level security systems. In this regard, CCTV surveillance systems are, indeed, an important component of any modern society. Not only are these systems a forensic tool, but they can also be integrated with other monitoring devices, alarm systems and access control devices, thus helping security personnel to identify and interrupt security breaches as they occur or even before they take place,” he said.
Japan only last month, through her Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Toshiyuki Iwado, pledged to support Zimbabwe in areas of technology, and infrastructural development. The Asian technological powerhouse extended a $3.6 million grant to Zimbabwe last November, which will be used for the acquisition of “cyber security equipment”.
Iwado said some of the new equipment to be provided which includes digital forensic tools, face recognition systems and an information sharing platform, will contribute to upgrading the capacity of the Zimbabwe Republic Police, and help promote inter-regional cooperation of the responsible bodies under the auspices of the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol).
Iran, another close ally of Harare has since 2007 been involved in a massive cyber training exercise of hundreds of Zimbabwe’s intelligence and military operatives. Under the leadership of former president, Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe is thought to have acquired state of the art software from Iran, which has been upgraded under Mnangagwa’s watch to snoop on the internet.
Tehran has developed one of the world’s most sophisticated mechanisms for controlling and censoring the internet, enabling the regime to examine the content of individual online communications at a grand scale, after courting the assistance of some European telecommunications companies in developing its monitoring capabilities.
Through a technique called “deep packet inspection”, Iran’s sophisticated mechanisms of controlling the internet enables government authorities to not only block communication but to monitor it, to gather information about individuals, as well as alter it for propaganda purposes, which is a dream come true for government’s egregious security law, The Interception of Communications Act passed in 2007 to allow government to wiretape all communications of the populace, without their consent or notification.
The law empowers the chief of defense intelligence, the director-general of the CIO, the commissioner of police and the commissioner general of the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (ZIMRA) to intercept telephonic, e-mail and cellphone messages
Spotlight Zimbabwe, in giving weight to today’s report, was the first publication to reveal last March , that Mnangagwa’s administration was on the brink of launching a sophisticated national spying facility, said to be similar in function to the National Security Agency (NSA) in the U.S, aimed at boosting homeland security and to fight cyber crimes and cyber warfares, with the closet assistance of Beijing, Moscow and Tehran. The facility, once in place is capable of monitoring landline phones, mobile and all internet communications, like the NSA located in Fort Meade, Maryland, high level sources within the Information Communication Technology and Cyber Security ministry disclosed last year.
Officials at the E-Government unit yesterday said the new algorithmic surveillance system expected to be up and running by 2023, will be married together with the spy facility established to fight cyber warfares internally and externally, and that the President’s Office is coordinating the project together with a new cyber division in the ministry of defence.