Malawi starts listening to phone conversations

Government will now be able to listen into people’s private telephone conversations, check SMS and monitor internet activity in real time after forcing telephone operators to surrender Call Detail Records (CDRs) to facilitate the use of the new eavesdropping equipment bought early this year.

CDRs provide detailed information including who called which number; details of calls received; time and duration of calls; location where call was made or received; SMS sent and received; type of handset used and other detailed subscriber information.

Currently, the operators provide summarized data from the CDRs and Macra is not able to access detailed subscriber information but the latest decision will equip Malawi Regulatory Authority (Macra) who will now be able to eavesdrop on conversations of anyone in the country.

The development has riled the Consumer Association of Malawi (Cama), a consumer protection group, who have vowed to stop the process because it is a violation of the right to privacy.

Macra’s decision will likely worsen President Bingu wa Mutharika’s human rights record after the major aid donor Britain on Thursday asked his administration to improve on human rights following the recent killing of a student activist and  government forces killed 20 protesters in July and

Macra has spent US$250,000 in much needed foreign exchange as part payment to buy the equipment from a US firm – Agilis International justifying that the equipment will help improve the quality of services, fraud management, revenue assurance and spectrum allocation.

But the operators namely; Airtel Malawi, TNM, ACL and MTL, have been meeting to charter and agreed to admit that they will no longer be able to protect the privacy of their customers.

“The operators will no longer be in a position to safeguard the privacy and confidentiality of customers’s communication activities as we understand it to be our obligation under our respective operating licences, the Communications Act (1998) and the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi,” MTL’s CEO Charles Chuka, Airtel’s MD Saulos Chilima, TNM’s CEO Willem Swart and Faizal Okhai, MD for Access Limited, said in a joint statement

The operators also said that the requested details differ fundamentally from what they currently provide to Macra for the purpose of monitoring quality of service.

“Customers are advised that the system can monitor and analyze telecommunications services including SMS and Internet in real time from the information contained within the CDRs. It is our understanding that the system has additional monitoring capabilities,” the operators warn in the statement.

Cama-  a consumer protection group- on Wednesday came out strongly against government’s decision saying that they are going to make sure that the process does not begin at all

“This is a bad policy for a country which is already bad on human rights at the moment,”  Cama chairman John Kapito said  accusing Macra and government of going ahead with a policy that directly affects the consumers without consulting them.

“We have noted how this government keeps on making decisions on policy issues without engaging the public and it’s because of this that we are worried because very few countries in Africa are using such equipment to manage information in a draconian way,” he said.

But minister of information Patricia Kaliati dismissed as lies that the machine and the CDRs will be used by Macra to spy on the masses. She said that equipment will only be used to improve the quality of services being offered by the operators and manage traffic.

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