Metadata retention is killing Africa’s investigative journalism

Posted on January 12, 2017 12:22 am

Someone challenged me yesterday to offer an insight of what metadata retention is and how it is impacting journalism and freedom of expression in general across the African continent. Although I can’t share details of who that person was and whats the purpose of his request, I feel obliged to write about what I understand with metadata. First of all, as far as am concerned there is no universal definition of metadata in African laws. A simple way to think about metadata is to describe it as machine created data. We all control what we say and type, but not what our phone or computer does to enable us to do so. For example, when one makes a phone call, whatever is uttered becomes the content and what the phone does, to let an caller or receiver say it, is recorded as metadata.Whether its e mail address or phone number or Voice over Internet Protocol number, the time and date of the communication, general location information such as cell tower data, information about the duration of the communication, the names and addresses like home, postal, billing of the parties, as well as other telephone numbers and e-mail addresses, all of them are referred to as metadata.So how are security organs killing investigative journalism in Africa? Well, I can’t claim to know everything but can share my views. What security agents are doing is to obtain all records of the journalist’s incoming and outgoing phone calls, emails, texts, with geolocation and time. This information in my knowledge will remain in security organ’s database forever. Then after obtaining all that information, government mafias, create a visual display of the data obtained. Then they are able to find out who had access to the leaked documents, they obtain their phone and internet records too and cross-reference with information obtained in collection of metadata.

What happens next is a creation of visualisation of connections between multiple suspects including informers of investigative journalist.Then what agents do is to use the location information to track individuals’ movements, including their past movements, to build up a pattern of contacts and possible rendezvous between informers and journalists.Using the location information in real time, the security agents are able to track investigative journalists as they prepare to meet their informers. In some countries which I cannot mention, they are even using facial recognition technology to track suspected journalists and informants or people helping leak information as they move around, even when they’ve left their computing devices behind to avoid detection. Then what follows is either arrest or disappearance of journalist and his informers. Metadata retention provides the authorities with a comprehensive digital picture of everyone’s movements, association, contacts, hobbies and interests over a period of years. This kind of information is retained at the intelligence agencies database forever. This means, anyone attempting to be an investigative journalist in Africa has to be aware that it is almost impossible to guarantee confidentiality to a source. As I have shared on this blog before, it doesn’t matter if you encrypt communications, the fact that an leaker of information has contacted a journalist remains, no way of avoiding detection.African is also witnessing the explosion of data generated by the internet enabled devices that collect and transmit data in real time. The real time transmission of vital information on individuals has obvious implications for privacy, identity theft, malicious attacks among other vulnerabilities. The automation of information exchange which means machine to machine and machine to humans, leads to a loss of user control and calls for more data protection rights.The non stop, involuntary and ubiquitous monitoring of investigative journalists to every Africa everyday activities means that the level of profiling and targeting will continues to grow in Africa thanks to the unparalleled powers security agencies have.

Contador Harrison