There is a picture of Sunday Standard Editor Outsa Mokone, on the day security agents raided his office in September 2014. He is accompanied by security agents. The picture was captured in the melee that ensued as security agents were making away with documents and computers from Mokone’s office. One bulky agent, in dark glasses, holds Mokone’s computer drive. Incidentally, columnist Sonny Serite, then a witness, can be seen clicking away, taking pictures on his phone.
Just two years later, Serite was arrested and detained on suspicions of having obtained information from a source. Both Mokone and Serite are free, and they are yet to have their day in court. Journalists have come to know that security agents may want journalists, but who they really need is that holy grail of journalistic work – the whistleblower and all the information that comes with the source. However recent developments in the United States may prove to be a blessing disguise for journalists and citizens increasingly concerned with encroachment of security apparatus on their privacy. In the week in which investigative journalism celebrated the product of the biggest leak in world history, now called the Panama Papers, communication platform WhatsApp, announced that it would extend end-to-end encryption for all its billion-plus users worldwide.
There has always been two ways of nabbing sources – direct surveillance both physical and electronic, and secondly physical arrest of the reporter and his equipment, and mining that for leads and crucial information.
At the time of Mokone’s arrest Mmegi, the private daily opined in its strongly worded editorial, that the attack on the veteran editor was an attempt to catch his sources.
“We also wait to see who the DIS will terrorise after they confiscated Mokone’s hard drive, which quite possibly carries e-mails and other information on some of his informants. We shall know whatever the DIS does to them. We know government has been terrorising sources. That is bad enough. But going for journalists in the course of their duties is even worse” stated Mmegi.
However the arrest of journalists often, leads to embarrassing headlines worldwide as Mokone’s capture did. So in recent times it was a well known secret among journalists that the security agents preferred electronic surveillance. Journalists who deal in serious reporting live in mortal fear of their sources being found. In the age of online communication, electronic communication such as SMS, email and social networks provides a double-edged sword for both reporter and source. It has the convenience of instantaneous, but it also leaves journalists open to electronic monitoring.
The telecommunication oversight body the Botswana Communications Regulatory Authority, in its latest financial reports outlines the ubiquity of mobile penetration in the country. “Over the past 10 years, mobile telephony subscriptions increased from 823,070 in March 2006 to 3,405,887 in March 2015 representing 314% increase. It is estimated that the mobile telephony networks cover at least 95% of the population with varying network capabilities of 2.5G, 3G and 4G”, it states in its 2015 Annual Report. The rapid rise mobile phone use in Botswana inevitably has led to mobile communication extending to journalists and their sources.
The arrest of Sonny Serite and his alleged source at the Office of the President, points to this interest by the security agents on not so much as the journalist but most importantly – the source. It was until perhaps this week, generally assumed among journalists that, communication platforms such as WhatsApp were simply a free for all for security agents looking for whistleblowers. Journalists took it for granted that their conversations were being monitored, a situation that spawned the famous line in most conversations between journalists, “Ba re reeditse monna” (Of course they are listening in).
Serite says the most trusted method was to always leave your mobile phone a few metres away from earsight when you are in conversation. “You had to put the phone in the safe. Then you can talk to your source” he says jokingly.
However recent developments in far-off United States seeks to throw a spanner in the works of Directorate of Intelligence and Security Director General Isaac Kgosi’s men in dark shades and their attempts to eavesdrop on electronic communication on the WhatsApp platform. Following on the controversial case by the US’s Federal Bureau of Investigation against Apple, the social network WhatsApp, this week switched on encryption for its billions-plus subscribers.
WhatsApp’s decision comes directly out of Apple’s tussle with the FBI according to IT security experts.
The International publication WIRED traces the story to February 16, when Apple CEO Tim Cook released an open letter refusing the court order to unlock a phone that belonged to one of the two shooters who killed 14 people and seriously injured another 22 during a December attack in San Bernardino, California.
“About two weeks later in Brazil, authorities arrested a Facebook vice president because WhatsApp wouldn’t turn over messages after a court order. Apparently, the authorities didn’t realize that the Facebook employee had nothing to do with WhatsApp—or that WhatsApp, thanks to end-to-end encryption, had no way of reading the messages. Two days later, WhatsApp joined Facebook and several other companies in filing an amicus brief in support of Apple in its fight against the FBI” reports WIRED’s Cade Metz in a detailed interview with the founders of WhatsApp Jan Koum and Brian Acton pubished last week. It has been reported that the FBI successfully cracked the Apple handset, after cooperation with Celebritte, a company which incidentally reportedly provided GSM jammers for the Directorate of Intelligence and Security.
CyberSecurity expert Itumeleng Garebatshabe, who runs a cybersecurity consultancy Intellegere Holdings, says WhatsApp has pretty much “closed off its platform from any third party access”. End-to-End Encryption, he says, means the communication will be so secure that not even FBI, “could crack that system”. To him that is a welcome development for both journalists and citizens. When The Business Weekly & Review asked him whether DIS couldn’t crack the system he paused and then added, “Look, it would take a seasoned guy maybe 100 years to crack one message”.
Meanwhile Government, in the aftermath of Serite arrest has been working to tighten the noose around potential whistleblowers at Government Enclave. This week, a Carter Morupisi Permanent Secretary to the President released a new savingram compelling Ministry heads to get non-disclosure agreements from their civil servants across the nation. Morupisi demands that all employees complete and sign the declaration form to be submitted by 29th April. “This is to mitigate the risk of leakage of confidential government information” concludes Morupisi.
In the US law enforcement proponents say companies have a responsibility to assist law enforcement in its work, and therefore, that companies such as WhatsApp who are implementing end-to-end encryption should leave a kind of open door only accessible to law enforcement officials. But both Garetshabe and WhatsAppfounders say that would defeat the purpose of setting up encryption in the first place. Serite says the security of such platforms as WhatsApp would greatly enhance the work of journalists in an environment where there is open attack on whistleblowers.
This debate flares up the same week that 300 plus journalists collaborated to produce stories from the biggest leak of the century, the Panama Paper, whose volcanic effects are still being felt worldwide.
Ntibinyane Ntibinyane Investigative journalist and partner at Ink Centre for Investigative Journalism, a new investigative journalism and freedom of information advocacy unit in Gaborone, was part of the worldwide probe. Ntibinyane says in the absence of whistleblower protection, journalists were always careful about how they interact with their sources. However he says while WhatsApp’s decision is welcome journalists should always explore other avenues for secure communication rather than trusting a multi-national corporation with their work. He says you could never trust that the security WhatsApp is providing will not be breached with the cooperation of the company. He urges journalists to use WhatsApp in their routine daily use but warns them to devise their own secure platforms when they engage in serious investigations that require a more secure environment. He gives the example of the Panama Leaks project. “In the recent investigation for example, we developed our own encryption system to use” he explains.
The Business Weekly & Review attempts to get the views of DIS Director General Kgosi were futile by going to print.
Meanwhile WhatsApp remains determined. “While we recognize the important work of law enforcement in keeping people safe, efforts to weaken encryption risk exposing people’s information to abuse from cybercriminals, hackers, and rogue states” the Jan and Brian