Only the guilty fear State eavesdropping on phone calls

Friday March 3 2017

Francis Wangusi, the director general of the Communications Authority of Kenya, at Laico Regency Hotel in Nairobi on February 27, 2017. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Francis Wangusi, the director general of the Communications Authority of Kenya, at Laico Regency Hotel in Nairobi on February 27, 2017. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Games Hadley Chase’s 1957 thriller The Guilty are Afraid should be required reading for all those getting their knickers in a twist over plans to protect the public from phone theft.

Government plans to install a device management system on the country’s mobile phone networks which will allow it to remotely identify communication devices and their users. Despite the requirement that every purchase of a subscriber identification module (Sim) card be only completed when one provides formal identification such as a passport, national identification or military service cards, as well as date of birth and address, millions of phone users in Kenya are chatting away in anonymity. They have turned mobile phones into tools for promoting terrorism and other ills and the mobile phone operators are complicit in hiding their activities to evade paying taxes.

Despite some 2.4 million mobile phone subscribers being switched off in January 2013, and the threat of a fine and jail time for buying Sim cards off hawkers early this year, the epidemic of fakes persists.

Kenyans should trust their government more as the Communications Authority of Kenya delivers on its mandate of identifying stolen handsets, fake phones and other devices that have not been type-approved by the authorities.


What harm can possibly come from the government knowing which outlet you have been paying for your supply of booze through mobile money, which places you frequent, and which Shylock receives a pound of flesh every month? Only the guilty are afraid.

Once the fake phones are traced and shut down, and the prison-based extortionists curtailed, the programme could be put to better use. Information about communication behaviour can be used for many nation-building projects.

Fears about loss of privacy are only a fig leaf for concealing crime and frustrating government efforts to gather useful intelligence. People who are not supporting terrorism or undermining the government have no reason to fear that their mobile phone conversations and messages can be seen. It is not clear why people who are innocent would not want the government to know what they are up to.

Those who do not have anything to hide should not be worried, just as those who have nothing to say should not be concerned about freedom of speech. Honestly, the government must be growing tired of using outdated methods of gathering information like grabbing papers, breaking into offices, stealing phones and computers, especially when people are doing all their things on their mobile phones.


Currently, the law requires security agencies to obtain permission from a judge before listening in to people’s phones. Without knowing which judicial officers have links to the underworld, by listening to their phones, it would be reckless to trust them with sensitive information about ongoing investigations. Intelligence services have been asking for a change in the law to allow them to tap phones without court warrants. In Rwanda, private messages sent over the phone, WhatsApp and Skype have been presented in court as evidence to show conspiracy to overthrow the government.

Government monitoring of phones has an unseen benefit for security and social behaviour. Once people know that the government is watching and listening, their behaviour will most likely change. They will avoid crime and behave themselves better than is currently the case.

Collecting metadata – information generated or processed as a consequence of a communication’s transmission – can reveal the true character of people, their beliefs, preferences and behaviour.

After all, private individuals are already doing it, as demonstrated in a New Yorker story by Gay Talese about Gerald Foos, the voyeur who bought a hotel and installed windows to watch his guests in congress. From his entertainment slot in the attic, Mr Foos was able to witness murders, suicides, pets pooping on the carpet and other anti-social behaviour.