Governments around the globe use surveillance technology to watch external threats to national security. Some African governments are also spending vast sums on mass surveillance of their very own residents.

They are using cell phone spyware, web interception devices, social media monitoring and biometric identity systems. Artificial intelligence for facial recognition and automobile number plate recognition is one other digital surveillance technology of their growing toolkit.

I recently led research which found that governments in Nigeria, Ghana, Morocco, Malawi and Zambia were collectively spending over US$1 billion a 12 months on these digital surveillance technologies, supplied by corporations within the US, the UK, China, the EU and Israel. These are enormous amounts of public expenditure in countries where public services similar to education and healthcare are under-funded.

The research also uncovered the harms that this digital surveillance causes.

We found that states were using surveillance technology contracts to spy on opposition politicians, journalists and peaceful activists. They were singling them out for harassment, arrest and even torture. This is in violation of countries’ constitutions, international human rights law and domestic laws. All the five countries studied have signed international conventions on the fitting to privacy and have incorporated privacy rights into domestic constitutions and national laws.

Our findings give cause for concern in regards to the chilling effect of mass surveillance on residents’ freedom of speech, stifling debate, closing civic space, and damaging democracy. The report documents using surveillance to watch, arrest and threaten journalists and peaceful activists who criticise government policies or ministers.

The study

We examined over 2,400 database records of contracts for the availability of surveillance technologies for the five countries. Ten countries were originally chosen for this study to represent Africa’s important regions and economies. However, we were forced to discontinue research in Egypt, Ethiopia, Algeria and Tunisia on account of security risks for the researchers. The writer of the Côte d’Ivoire report needed to withdraw for unrelated personal reasons.

This study covers only 10% of the countries in Africa, so the entire expenditure on surveillance technologies is actually much higher.

Despite these limitations, our report provides essentially the most detail thus far on the scale of the market. It also details corporations and countries supplying the surveillance technologies.

According to the evidence available to us, Nigeria has procured greater than another country on the continent. The government is a customer of nearly every major surveillance technology company that we examined. It spends lots of of tens of millions of dollars annually, and at the very least US$2.7 billion on known contracts between 2013 and 2022. This is the equivalent of $12 per Nigerian citizen.

However, this is simply a fraction of the true total because the monetary value of many known contracts is just not public knowledge and lots of contracts should not in the general public domain in any respect.

The findings

We found that different African countries had distinct surveillance profiles.

Morocco has been an avid consumer of web and cell phone interception technologies. It has even conducted mobile surveillance of its own king. Ghana focuses on cell phone spyware and on surveillance of public space. It spent over US$250 million between 2018 and 2021 on a “secure city” project. This involved over 8,400 CCTV cameras on streets, equipped with facial recognition technology and streaming information to a national surveillance data centre with equipment from Chinese corporations like Huawei and ZTE.

Zambia has also made an enormous investment in a secure city surveillance system. In Nigeria, facial and automobile number plate recognition is used across Lagos and Abuja. Malawi’s investment in surveillance systems is relatively modest; to date it has rejected the secure city surveillance package being rolled out across Africa by Chinese corporations.

Human rights cost

Beyond the financial cost, the widespread use of digital surveillance products has taken a toll on human rights. It has caused long-term physical and psychological harm to individuals unjustly targeted by surveillance tech and held without trial and even tortured by authorities, as documented within the report by the “surveillance stories” case studies from each country.

Journalists and activists, or regular residents, have been tracked, arrested and detained only for posting a critical message on social media. Under the pretext of national security, governments have exceeded their legal powers of surveillance. They have done so with impunity. As our reports document, even when courts find that security agencies have exceeded their legal power, no person has been prosecuted and even demoted.

The few rules of surveillance supply which can be in place should not being followed. For instance Frontex, headquartered in Warsaw, Poland, and the European External Action Service, the EU’s diplomatic agency, are being investigated by the European Ombudsman over failures to conduct human rights assessments of their surveillance technology transfers to non-EU countries. Self-policing of corporations has proved inadequate in stopping violation of human rights.

Surveillance is a violation of the right to privacy of communication and correspondence. Privacy is very important in its own right. It can be necessary in making possible free trade, freedom of expression and open democracy.

What to do about it

Our study points to an urgent need for international governance within the absence of effective national checks for using artificial intelligence in surveillance. Authoritarian governments could misuse it to violate privacy and repress peaceful opposition.

On the availability side there’s a necessity for robust legal frameworks to abolish the export of surveillance technologies used to violate human rights. Companies supplying these to known human rights abusers needs to be sanctioned, as is the case with corporations that breach legal controls on the export of weapons and munitions.

On the demand side the general public must be more aware of their privacy rights and of the expansion of mass surveillance. Civil society has a task to play in getting the courts to guard their rights and freedoms.

Public expenditure on surveillance needs to be defunded and the cash redirected to productive social services similar to education and health. The goal needs to be the abolition of all rights-violating surveillance technologies.

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