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Africa, laboratory of cyber-surveillance and manipulation of opinion

Two years ago, Bishop Benoît Alowonou discovered that his smartphone had been targeted by Pegasus spyware. The Togolese bishop, accustomed to negotiations between power and the opposition, then let go: “I have nothing to hide, but it seems clear that it is dangerous for our freedoms, for our democracy.” This digital weapon, designed and marketed by the Israeli company NSO, allows access to all the content of a smartphone.

A data leak has since enabled a consortium of journalists and NGOs to go through thousands of numbers potentially targeted by Pegasus, marketed by its manufacturer as a tool in the fight against terrorism and organized crime and which has rather revealed to be a deadly virus for democracy and the rule of law. From Saudi Arabia to Togo, from Rwanda to Morocco, this technology has been directed against opponents, clerics, activists and even heads of state.

An unregulated market, without competition

Africa is both a customer and a laboratory for these technologies. In the absence of regulations, control bodies and protection of digital rights, the continent is that of all possibilities for European, Israeli, Asian and Russian producers of digital surveillance and online influence tools. An uncompetitive market where their customers rule the roost. The latter are the States, their ministers, the police and intelligence services. Once equipped, they can peacefully carry out operations at the limit of legality, of which they are theoretically the guarantors.

Thus, strolling through the streets of Kampala or Ouagadougou, the onlooker who does not pay attention to the white poles surmounted by ultra-sophisticated cameras is unaware that he is under surveillance. The powers that be have used the Chinese company Huawei to deploy these “safe city” systems. The images allow facial recognition and are transmitted in real time to the security services. In times of political contestation, arrests are made easier. In other countries, protesters are targeted upstream through infiltration of their computer or smartphone. What constitute files of “evidence” of attacks on the security of the State, and justify preventive arrests to stem citizen movements.

Influencing the course of events

Other data is collected on social media, siphoned off through app vulnerabilities, or bought in cryptocurrencies on the dark web. Influence and “strategic communication” companies are then responsible for processing them, in order to amplify certain messages, to drown out others, in order to influence the algorithms and user behavior to influence the course. events.

The most emblematic case is that of the defunct British company Cambridge Analytica, which had tested its services during the elections in Nigeria in 2014, then in Kenya three years later, before deploying them in particular in the United States for Donald Trump. Since then, other players have taken over and sell their services for a few million dollars in countries like Congo or Rwanda. Almost all major political moments on the continent are now marked by the combination of these techniques of influence and surveillance.

One of the original promises of the tech sector is to develop Africa faster and better. To do this, we must build an ecosystem and encourage “emergence” stimulated by start-ups. States agree, not without conditions, to adhere to a form of liberal doctrine, leaving companies and computer developers to maintain the myth that they will fill their own gaps in terms of public services. It is an over-the-counter contract on sovereign sections of power that States delegate by letting companies organize the public sphere, collect and use data. Infrastructure is also needed: submarine cables, fiber optics, low-altitude satellites for access in rural areas, which are provided by the digital giants.

Cut the internet if necessary

On this utopia is grafted a political and security reality of powers that willingly compose with this “tech-washing” guarantor of funding from donors, diplomatic support and even visits with great fanfare from Jack Ma (Alibaba), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) or Jack Dorsey (Twitter). Proof of the ability of tech giants to dialogue with authoritarian states, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has in a few years become one of the leading investors in Silicon Valley. It doesn’t matter if the services of these companies are systematically suspended during elections in many African countries. The Internet is still perceived as a threat and an economic opportunity, but also one of increased surveillance, a new territory over which sovereignty must be total. The security services subtly arrange their control of cyberspace as a source of maximum collection of data on citizens and a device for managing populations. Even if it means blocking the internet or social networks and dreaming of a national internet that can be cut off from all outside influence, as China and Russia are trying to do.

Pointing out African customers, denouncing the authoritarianism of certain heads of state is necessary. But what about suppliers? For thirty years, an industry specializing in online surveillance has been developing. These service providers from the crucible of States, sometimes led by former intelligence or telecom services, have perfected their capacities for data collection and interception, analysis and intrusion. They have honed their ability to set up profiles using marketing knowledge, or have mastered the art of manipulating information online.

On the one hand, the West encourages African activists. On the other, it authorizes the sale of digital surveillance tools to the powers that oppress them.

In technological hubs from Bombay to London, via Herzliya and Palo Alto, Moscow and Beijing, companies are developing ever more sophisticated products, new threats to individual and collective freedoms. They offer African governments an ever-expanding catalog of digital arsenals, with the discreet consent of exporting states. When they do not obtain it, they dilute their responsibility by going through tax havens, channels and intermediaries who act as screens.

All abuses are possible

The African Internet is in full development, carrying hopes and fears. For the time being, he has no choice but to submit to the desiderata of heads of state and their business partners who provide them with the tools to undermine the rule of law. Civil society activists and NGOs are the targets. Their voices are essential to continue to carry the debate on a free internet where users have rights guaranteed by law. Journalists and fact-checkers are, through their work and professionalism, the guarantors of free and trustworthy information. On the one hand, the European Union and the United States encourage them, support them financially. On the other hand, they authorize the sale of digital surveillance tools to the powers that oppress them. They are reluctant to put in place the same regulations for exports in Africa as those applied on their territory. Without an obligation of transparency and democratic control over the export of these technologies, all abuses are possible.

At the global level, no cross-cutting governance and control body oversees this sector. Like offshore finance, players in this industry ignore jurisdictions. NGOs and research centers such as the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School are urging states to put in place a moratorium on such surveillance technologies and a blacklist of vendors. The digital behemoths maintain opacity in their algorithms. They refuse to give access to their data for research. Without regulation, manufacturers, resellers and subcontractors will continue to make the African continent a digital wild west.

Corentin Cohen is a researcher in political science and international relations at the University of Oxford. Joan Tilouine is a journalist, head of investigations at Africa Intelligence.

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