The fear among some politicians in Swaziland that their phones might be tapped has revived memories of when the kingdom’s army was caught buying spy cameras and phone monitoring equipment worth US$1.25 million.
It came to light in 2012 when prodemocracy demonstrations were at their height in the kingdom ruled by King Mswati III as sub-Saharan Africa’s last absolute monarch.
The Umbutfo Swaziland Defence Force (USDF) – the formal name of the Swaziland Army – was sued in the Swaziland High Court because it ordered the equipment, but did not pay for it.
The equipment was known as GSM Option: Voice Intercept or delivery and SMS (Short Message Service) Intercept or delivery, as well as spy cameras and alarm systems, the Times of Swaziland reported at the time.
The equipment could be used against the civilian population in Swaziland. The Voice Intercept equipment is marketed as a tool to monitor and record live phone conversations, which, according to one supplier called SyTech Corporation, the equipment can be a valuable asset to any agency and investigation. It, ‘delivers the evidence that makes the case while protecting officers’ safety’.
The GSM equipment is designed to monitor mobile phones. This type of equipment is widely available across the world. Another supplier listed the main use as, ‘following a person’s activities and staying undetected’.
The equipment records all information on the phone as it happens and records ‘phone events’. It can spy on SMS text messages, on web browser activities and call logs (inbound and outbound). It can also track the phone’s location using GPS.
It was, one supplier said, ‘100 percent undetectable and you can spy on unlimited [number of] phones.’
The Swaziland Army ordered equipment worth about E10 million (US$1.25 million at the then exchange rate) from Naspoti J & M Security Solutions, in Nelspruit, South Africa, the Swazi High Court heard, but cancelled the order just as the company was ready to deliver. No reason was given to the court for the cancellation but, then as today the Swazi Government was broke and struggling to pay its bills, including public sector salaries.
The revelation came at a time of growing activity in the kingdom to force King Mswati to democratise. All political parties and opposition groups are banned and the King controls the parliament and judiciary.
This was not the first time that the Swazi ruling elite has been found trying to spy on the King’s subjects. In August 2011, Wikileaks published a cable from the US Embassy in Swaziland that revealed the Swazi Government had tried to get MTN, the only mobile phone provider in the kingdom, to use its network for ‘surveillance on political dissidents’.
Tebogo Mogapi, the MTN chief executive officer (CEO) in Swaziland, refused to comply and later did not have his work permit renewed and so had to leave the kingdom.
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