South Africa’s government has admitted to carrying out mass surveillance and bulk interception of communications in the country, including telephone communications and internet traffic.

This confession came during legal proceedings brought by the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism and journalist Stephen Patrick Sole, with the help of Privacy International and Right2Know.

In 2017, South Africa’s amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism opened up a legal challenge when it learned that state spies had been recording journalist Sam Sole’s telephone communications for several months in 2008.

The challenge confronts the constitutionality of specific sections of the regulatory framework of South Africa, including the Regulation of Interception of Communications Act of 2002 (RICA) and the National Security Act of 1994 (NSIA).

The privacy organizations involved believe that the regulatory acts violate the right to privacy and that the High Court of South Africa should declare them unconstitutional.

In the affidavit South Africa’s intelligence agencies admitted to the “tapping or recording of transnational signals, including, in some cases, undersea fiber optic cables,” and intercepting “any communication that emanates from outside the borders of the Republic (in this case, South Africa) and passes through or ends in the Republic.”

Within the proceedings, the South African intelligence agencies stated that surveillance aims to ensure that the “state is secured against transnational threats.”

However, while they argued that bulk interception is aimed at foreign signal intelligence, the agencies admitted that the system cannot distinguish between foreign and domestic communication. This can only be done with human intervention and analysis.

They reassured the court saying: “RICA provides for sufficient safeguards designed to ensure that Bulk surveillance takes place in an environment that protects abuse and unlawful invasion of privacy.” However, no further information was given.

The South African government defended its mass surveillance of the nation’s communications by repeating that it’s a generally accepted practice.

South Africa is not the only government to publicly admit to conducting bulk interception of internet traffic in this manner. The UK government has also confessed as a result of similar legal proceedings.

While the confessions only came after legal pressure, this is an important development for government transparency.

When Edward Snowden disclosed the mass surveillance practices of multiple nations in 2013 the governments refused to acknowledge the existence of the programs in question, until now.

One of these programs, known as Tempora, included Government Communications Headquarter (GCHQ)’s use of secretly attached probes to undersea fibre optic cables landing in the UK.

The use of VPN software can help to prevent the monitoring of online activities by routing internet traffic through an encrypted tunnel. You can read more about VPNs in our guide ‘What Is a VPN?‘.