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Govt spends Shs 200bn on spying gadgets

Politicians such as Mbabazi, Kizza Besigye are under surveillance

More surveillance equipment to cost Shs300bn

The government could have spent nearly Shs 200 billion on the FinFisher surveillance equipment it uses to spy on opposition politicians, The Observer understands.

The expenditure on spy equipment is likely to rise, if the government spends another $82.5 million (about Shs 303.6 billion) to procure systems for a national emergency call centre expansion.

According to a leaked report that details the use of hi-tech gadgets to spy on opposition politicians, the government is currently in advanced stages of procuring a communications monitoring centre, five years after Parliament passed the Regulation of Interception of Communications Act.

“In 2013, the inter-agency Joint Security/ICT technical committee invited bids for the project from seven technology companies based in China, Israel, Italy, Poland and the United Kingdom. While it was expected that the monitoring centre would be operational by the 2016 elections, at the time of writing, it is not. The police also attempted to procure further technologies from intrusion malware supplier and rival to Gamma Group, Hacking Team, in mid-2015,” the report says.

Last week, a report and leaked documents showed that the government purchased equipment in December 2011 from Gamma International GmbH of Germany, which it used to break opposition demonstrations after infiltrating their communication gadgets.

The equipment was used in an operation called Fungua Macho (Open your eyes), where spies planted the gadgets in mobile phones and laptops of opposition figures. They were also planted in top Kampala hotels and leading suburbs within the vicinity of the city centre.

The government has, however, denied that it purchased the equipment, with the deputy director of the Uganda Media Centre, Col Shaban Bantariza, telling journalists on Friday that the report by Privacy International was merely meant to malign the government and its security agencies.

COUNTING THE COST

While the report did not include the cost of the equipment, a separate document from purchases of similar systems in Egypt indicates that each system is priced at $470,000 or Shs2 billion. Given that Uganda wanted to secure 100 units of the system, according to documents published alongside the report, it means the government could have spent Shs 200 billion on the surveillance equipment.

On the other hand, the Shs 300bn equipment to be purchased through the ministry of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) is ostensibly to facilitate “lawful interception of communication” through the establishment of a fully-integrated communication monitoring centre.

“The solution will also provide a capability to closely follow activities on Internet, social media, chat-rooms, emails, blogs and any other electronic publications and mass media. This monitoring capability, in conjunction with the data from SIM card registration, shall assist law enforcement and security agencies in tracking various activities conducted over communication networks,” says an intelligence brief to President Museveni from a joint security/ICT technical committee.

This committee, which was undertaking what was dubbed the public safety network project, consisted of officials from the ministries of security, defence, internal affairs and ICT.

While the source of the money for the FinFisher equipment was not revealed in the leaked documents, the joint security/ICT technical committee says in its brief that its activities would be funded through a loan from China.

“A team headed by the minister of Security approached Exim Bank of China for financial support and Exim Bank indicated readiness to finance the project as long as it is included on Uganda government project priority list,” says the brief to Museveni, which adds that implementation of the project was to be carried out in three phases.

RISING CLASSIFIED SPENDING

The purchases also bring to the fore the rising budgets for confidential expenditure to purchase equipment used in military and intelligence operations. The Privacy International report notes that Uganda’s use of confidential ‘classified expenditure’ budgets has increased significantly.

“The classified expenditure allocation under the ministry of defence budget doubled from UGX 122 billion (US$ 48.9 million) in the 2012-2013 fiscal year to UGX 300 billion (US$ 115.38 million) in 2013-2014, despite protests from Members of Parliament who alleged that the use of classified budgets risked breeding corruption and diverting resources from priorities like soldier salaries and military hospitals,” the report says.

In the 2015-2016 financial year, the report further explains, the defence budget rose to its highest ever, Shs 1.4 trillion (US$ 442 million), with Shs 607 billion (US$ 190.8 million) designated as classified, prompting concerns that funds were being diverted to the president’s election campaign.

Privacy International, which released the documents, notes that targeting political opponents and others for surveillance without a court warrant is illegal under the Regulation of Interception of Communications Act and urges the government to reform the laws and its actions.

“Ugandan laws and oversight mechanisms need to be significantly reformed and strengthened to ensure compliance with international human rights, including privacy, freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. This is particularly important in light of the use of surveillance technologies such as FinFisher malware as described in the evidence obtained by Privacy International,” says the UK-based organisation.

hobenon@observer.ug

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