Taking the Spy Machine South: Communications Surveillance in Sub-Saharan Africa

  • Jane Duncan


In 2013, former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden collaborated with journalists to leak documents on the NSA’s spying activities. The NSA is a United States (US) governmental agency responsible for the collection of signals intelligence, or intelligence gleaned from the surveillance of electronics networks (Gill & Phythian, 2012, pp. 79–101). The leaks revealed that the NSA was intercepting the communications of millions of innocent citizens in the USA and elsewhere, through various surveillance programmes. These widespread abuses of citizens’ right to privacy occurred in spite of the fact that the NSA was meant to use programmatic surveillance only to collect evidence of serious crimes or terrorism, which are almost universally considered to be legitimate grounds for surveillance. The documents also showed that the NSA collaborated extensively with other governmental spy agencies, especially those that form part of the ‘Five Eyes’ group of countries. The ‘Five Eyes’ refers to a coalition of countries co-operating with one another to fight terrorism and other national security threats, and includes the USA, the United Kingdom (UK), Australia, New Zealand and Canada (Privacy International, n.d.-b). The Snowden revelations caused widespread outrage, with communications users in many countries protesting against violations of their rights and freedoms.


  1. Anderson, C. (2015). Considerations on Wassenaar arrangement control list additions for surveillance technologies. Retrieved January 10, 2016, from
  2. Bennett, C. (2011). In defence of privacy. Surveillance and Society, 8(4), 487–488.Google Scholar
  3. Cheru, F. (1995). The World Bank and structural adjustment in Africa: A critical view of adjustment in Africa: Reforms, results and the road ahead. Africa Insight, 25(4), 236–240.Google Scholar
  4. Citizenlab. (n.d.). About (company website). Retrieved January 16, 2017, from
  5. Clarke, R. (1988). Information technology and dataveillance. Communications of the ACM, 35(5), 498–499.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Dencik, L., & Cable, J. (2017). The advent of surveillance realism: Public opinion and activist responses to the Snowden leaks. International Journal of Communication, 11, 763–781.Google Scholar
  7. Duncan, J. (2016). Protest nation: The right to protest in South Africa. Durban: University of KwaZulu/Natal Press.Google Scholar
  8. Duncan, J. (in press). Stopping the spies: Constructing and resisting the surveillance state in South Africa. Unpublished manuscript.Google Scholar
  9. European Commission. (2016, August 24). Report from the European Commission to the European Parliament and the Council on the implementation of Regulation (EC) No 428/2009 setting up a community regime for the control of exports, transfer, brokering and transit of dual-use items (report). Retrieved April 27, 2017, from, p. 9.
  10. European Court of Human Rights. (2017, December 4). Roman Zakharov v. Russia (legal judgement): Para 270. http://hudoc.echr.coe.inteng#{%22fulltext%22:[%22zakharov%22],%22documentcollectionid2%22:[%22GRANDCHAMBER%22,%22CHAMBER%22],%22itemid%22:[%22001-159324%22]}.
  11. FinFisher GmbH. (n.d.). Finspy PC, Remote Monitoring Solutions (product brochure). Wikileaks Spyfiles 4 (database of leaked documents). Retrieved February 24, 2017, from
  12. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. (2010). Exhibit F: In the matter of foreign governments, foreign factions, foreign entities and foreign based political organisations, Certification 2010 A. Retrieved August 11, 2016, from
  13. Foucault, M. (1975). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison (p. 201). Middlesex: Penguin Books.Google Scholar
  14. Fuchs, C. (2011). Towards an alternative concept of privacy. Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society, 9(4), 220–237.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Gill, P., & Phythian, M. (2012). Intelligence in an insecure world (pp. 79–101). Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  16. Groenewald, Y. (2011, September 2). SA firm “helped” Gadaffi spy on the people of Libya. Mail & Guardian. Retrieved January 9, 2016, from
  17. Gunter, J. (2014, February 26). Digital surveillance in Angola and other “less important” African countries. Global Voices. Retrieved May 4, 2017, from
  18. Hacking Team. (n.d.). Remote control system (information brochure), in privacy international. Surveillance Industry Index. Retrieved October 27, 2016, from
  19. Hintz, A., & Brown, I. (2017). Enabling digital citizenship? The reshaping of surveillance policy after snowden. International Journal of Communication, 11, 782–801.Google Scholar
  20. Landau, S. (2010). Surveillance or security? The risks posed by new wiretapping technologies. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute for Technology.Google Scholar
  21. Lyon, D. (2017). Surveillance culture: Engagement, exposure and ethics in digital modernity. International Journal of Communication, 11, 824–842.Google Scholar
  22. Madsen, W. (2014, August 6). America’s expanding aggressive signals intelligence operations, strategic culture foundation. Retrieved January 13, 2017, from
  23. Marx, G. (2012). “Your papers please”: Personal and professional encounters with surveillance. In K. Bell, K. D. Haggerty, & D. Lyon (Eds.), Handbook of surveillance studies (p. xxv). Oxon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  24. News24. (2016, July 4). SA votes against internet freedoms in UN resolution. Daily Maverick. Retrieved August 10, 2016, from
  25. Okoth-Ogenda, H. W. O. (1991). Constitutions without constitutionalism: Reflections on an African political paradox. In I. Shivji (Ed.), State and constitutionalism: An African debate on democracy. Harare: SAPES Books.Google Scholar
  26. Omanovic, E. (2015, 13 March). New paper reveals how to keep surveillance tech from human rights abusers. Access Now (blog). Retrieved January 10, 2016, from
  27. Omanovic, E. (2016, 8 April). Hacking team’s global licence revoked by Italian export authorities. Privacy International (blog). Retrieved October 25, 2016, from
  28. Oxford, A. (2013, August 3). Why is X-keyscore in Zambia and the Sudan? HTXT. Retrieved August 11, 2016, from
  29. Paradigm Initiative Nigeria. (2016, December 8). Digital rights in Africa Report 2016 (p. 2).Google Scholar
  30. Perlo-Freeman, S. A., Fleurant, P., Wezeman, P., & Wezeman, S. (2016, April). Trends in world military expenditure 2015. Retrieved September 22, 2016, from
  31. Prempeh, O. (2004). Anti-globalization forces, the politics of resistance, and Africa. Journal of Black Studies, 34(4), 580–598.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Privacy International. (2015, October). For God and my president: State surveillance in Uganda (blog post). Retrieved May 4, 2017, from
  33. Privacy International (2016a, 14 December). Switching hats: Why South Africa’s surveillance industry needs scrutiny (blog post). Retrieved March 7, 2017, from
  34. Privacy International. (2016b), 1 April). UN calls on Namibia, New Zealand, Rwanda, South Africa to reform surveillance. Will the governments act? Retrieved May 4, 2017, from
  35. Privacy International. (2016c). The Global Surveillance Industry (report). Retrieved April 4, 2017, from
  36. Privacy International. (2017a, March 14). State of privacy: Kenya (report). Retrieved May 4, 2017, from
  37. Privacy International. (2017b, March 14). State of privacy: Uganda (report). Retrieved May 3, 2017, from
  38. Privacy International. (2017c, March). Track, capture, kill: Inside communications surveillance and counterterrorism in Kenya. Retrieved May 4, 2017, from
  39. Privacy International. (n.d.-a). Briefing for the Italian Government on Hacking Team (undated letter to the Italian government). Retrieved May 2, 2017, from
  40. Privacy International. (n.d.-b). The Five Eyes (blog post). Retrieved March 1, 2017, from
  41. Privacy International. (n.d.-c). What is communications surveillance? (blog post). Retrieved February 22, 2017, from
  42. The Wassenaar Arrangement. (n.d.). Participating states. Retrieved April 27, 2017, from
  43. Tsandzana, D. (2016, May 16). The government of Mozambique is “spying on its citizens” according to @Verdade (blog post). Global Voices. Retrieved May 4, 2017, from
  44. Valentino-DeVries, J, Lam Thuy, V., & Yadron, D. (2015, December 28). Cataloguing the World’s Cyberforces. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved May 3, 2017, from
  45. Vastech. (n.d.). Zebra Strategic Network communication monitoring (undated product brochure). Retrieved January 9, 2016, from
  46. Wikileaks. (2014, September 15). Finfisher—documents. Spyfiles 4 (database of leaked documents). Retrieved February 27, 2017, from

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jane Duncan
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Journalism, Film and TelevisionUniversity of Johannesburg (UJ)JohannesburgSouth Africa

Personalised recommendations