Mobile phone spying in Africa on the rise

Posted on October 21, 2013 09:39 am

Africa is emerging as a major conduit for targeted private spying, a report shows, as online criminals and corrupt private detectives have shifted their illicit business towards the continent whereby cybercriminals are attacking invading people’s privacy and spying business rivals. According to a report by a cyber security firm, 48 per cent of targeted attacks in the first quarter of this year were men who were being monitored on behalf of their couples. In South Africa and Nigeria cyber criminals and greedy private detectives are using servers that have infected computers to steal corporate secrets. Sensitive information of many ordinary Africans is also being obtained illegally. The new findings offer a shocking insight into Africans use of spying techniques that have been a preserve to the realm of government spy agencies with disregard of the existing laws. The report cites Botswana, Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, Uganda, Ghana and Tanzania as the countries where these crooks are enriching themselves by using sophisticated software to eavesdrop on the wireless communications of their partners, lovers, children in boarding schools and most shocking of all business rivals including banks and telecoms are spying on each other with cyber attacks being the most preferred method. The study examined the data traffic of mobile devices operating on the East and Southern Africa networks, close to half a million people had some form of surveillance software installed on their phones without their knowledge.

In Kenya, Mobile Spying culture started in 2010 when Juju Limited launched an application with added GPS feature that tells users their target’s location. Dubbed Juju which is Swahili for black magic, the software is one of the many pieces of commercially available spyware that millions of people in Africa with physical access to smartphones and tablets have installed to secretly log each text message, phone call and contact, and illegally eavesdrop on calls in real time without the knowhow of security agencies. In almost all African countries only security agencies with a court warrant are supposed to monitor such information but that is no longer the case because infidelity has become the key driver for spyware. The study specifically shows that installation are done by spouses and private investigators who are mostly retired military and intelligence officers who knows all too well that such activities are illegal. There was a case in Kenya where a disgruntled jobless young man installed spyware on his ageing father to tap all communications between him with his elder brother on what researchers suspect was the case of tracking inheritance plans.

In Tanzania, a 23 year old admitted spying on her boyfriend because she feared sharing the man with other women. The number of phones with spyware has increased from estimated 20,000 in 2010 to estimated 550,000 small and the study expects that figure to grow amid increasing awareness of surveillance technology, be it at the consumer or national level although it is illegal. An expert I spoke to expect thousands of legal cases to prop up in coming months and could lead to divorces and separations. The expert is preparing to go to court to sue his client wife for hiring a private detective to spy on him and installing spy software that was detected by software that detects malicious mobile applications. Most of mobile spy wares markets their product to consumers despite the fact that it’s illegal to spy on phones other people own.  Unlike in the western countries where private spying terms of service states that users need to own the phones the software is being installed on, or the users need to have written authorization from the target in Africa private detectives and criminals are doing so without permission and with impunity backed by corrupt lawyers.

What the cybercriminals and private detectives are hoping that those being spied will not notice the spyware and it won’t look that suspicious and they try to fly under the radar. The average cost of a mobile spyware in Africa ranges between $150-$200 in East Africa to between $100-$150 in Southern Africa region per months and cost is met those being spied on without their notice. One wonders why regulatory authorities have allowed this business to flourish at the expense of people’s liberty. The average victim now loses $150-$250 per month, up from an average of $100-$120 just three years ago. The report showed the number of victims also went up from an estimated 6,000 in 2008-2010 to close to 1 million in the past 12 months. The crooks are focusing more on select individuals and lovers and that has led to increases in blackmailing, private detectives defrauding their clients and theft of identity theft that was rare a decade ago. Stolen identities are used to cook false evidence against the unsuspecting victims being spied on. I think spying over someone illegally is a direct ticket to behind bars. In one case in Botswana, a lady confessed how she was keeping a tab on the locations and conversations of her boyfriend after installing a micro video and audio recorder inside his car. Not all private detectives are crook but me think the relevant authorities should take legal action against criminals who install devices to spy on people without their authorities. I think firms dealing in the supply of security and spying gadgets should act responsibly and not trade their businesses with impunity as if they are above the law.

Contador Harrison