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Can governments snoop on your social media chats?

Tuesday October 8 2019

By JOHN WALUBENGO
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Last weeks article on the proposed social media bill got some readers wondering if governments have the technical capabilities to access and read our private social media conversations.

The simple answer is that it depends on the technical capabilities, time, resources it is willing to deploy, as well as the political architecture of the government.

We could use the US (extreme democracy) and China (extreme autocracy) as examples of governments with ability to access private conversations with various levels of success.

LIMITED ACCESS

In the old days when communication was purely through telephone landlines owned by government monopolies, it was a foregone conclusion that governments, whether democratic or otherwise, had unlimited access to citizen conversations.

But as communication technology shifted to Internet-based technologies owned by private sector players such as Whatsapp, Telegram and Instagram, it became increasingly difficult and in some cases impossible to tap conversations.

Encryption, the process that scrambles messages online, making them impossible to be accessed by third parties have continued to improve and be adopted by service providers to the point where it is infeasible to listen in on conversations.

One crude way to circumvent this – and is used by China – is to create government sponsored social media platforms such as WeChat while banning the private sector social media platforms such as Whatsapp.

Essentially, this means that China has unlimited access to the private conversations of the over 1 billion WeChat users on the platform. And since they technically own this platform, the do not face the technical and legal hurdles that other democratic countries may have to contend with.

Which brings us to the US experience in policing and accessing the social media environment.

CONVINCE JUDGE

In democratic societies, governments have access to our social media conversations but must first convince a judge or magistrate and get a warrant to authorise them to tap your conversation.

Even when such a warrant is issued, it may still be impossible to listen into private conversations especially if the service providers is not domiciled in the country, is using end-to-end encryption within the platform or simply ignores the request.

In such a situation, government’s only mechanism to access your private conversation is either through coercion or covert action.

The US has occasionally battled with big tech companies by issuing court orders to have these companies crack up user passwords or encryption mechanisms in order to access private conversations.

What users need to know is that whereas most service providers will provide and guarantee end-to-end encryption during transmission, the same may not apply for the data on your device.

In other words, if you have saved your Whatsapp or social media messages on a local device, it is difficult but not impossible to have engineers crack up your devices and access your private communication.

Other ways of accessing your private conversation is through the good old covert methods such as planting agents within your social media groups.

If an agent is part of your private group by registration, then clearly, they do not have any legal or technical obstacles that they need to overcome in order to access your conversations.

So, can governments access your private social media conversations?

It depends.

Mr Walubengo is a lecturer at Multimedia University of Kenya, Faculty of Computing and IT.

Email: [email protected], Twitter: @Jwalu