Ghanaians show little interest even as governments spend some $184m on spyware

It is now no secret that governments in Ghana have obtained mass surveillance technologies with the capabilities of spying on mobile phones, Internet interception, social media monitoring, and through biometric ID data collection. Some of the technologies also include facial and car number plate recognition. These developments are in the face of the fact that Ghana is regarded as Africa’s most dynamic democracy.

The foray into the use of mass surveillance technologies patently infringes on the constitutional rights of citizens, but Ghanaians appear unbothered. There are barely any public reactions, as compared to other issues of less significance, especially concerning the private matters of individuals.

According to a report published last year by the UK-based Institute of Development Studies (IDS), Ghana has spent some $184 million on known contracts with multiple overseas companies. The report was produced by qualitative analysis of open-source data in the public domain, the authors say.

The report notes that the majority of the financing has been spent on implementing a so-called safe city project with a CCTV component powered by Chinese company Huawei’s facial recognition AI.

“Additionally, multiple new biometric identification systems require citizens to provide facial recognition or fingerprint biometrics – often as part of the China-based companies’ surveillance for monitoring citizens in public spaces known as ‘safe city’,” the report said.

The authors of the report say Ghana has previously been recognised as one of Africa’s most politically open and free countries, but recent and rapid expansion of public space surveillance have given cause for concern.

“The government is using this technology to single out citizens for harassment, detention and torture for expressing opposing views, violating international human rights law and the technology companies’ policies,” the authors say.

One of the authors of the report, Oyewole Adekunle Oladapo, a faculty member at he Department of Communication and Language Arts, University of Ibadan, Nigeria, said: “As the government increases its possession of surveillance technologies, Ghana’s democratic profile has been declining and is at risk. We need to increase public awareness of expanding surveillance and the digital rights implications of safe cities and biometric identification.

“We need much greater transparency regarding the procurement of surveillance technologies and their use. Publications of annual reports by an independent oversight body could be one solution to increase transparency. Furthermore, for civil society to be able to hold the government accountable, independent judiciary and media are essential.”

The report notes that Article 18 of Ghana’s constitution prohibits state interference with citizens’ privacy, family, home, or correspondence, and the government generally respects these prohibitions in practice. However, the recent Pegasus mobile spyware cases have shown that Ghana is not completely free of state surveillance.

The report is part of a larger study that found that African governments are spending over $1 billion a year on digital surveillance technologies which are being used without adequate legal protections in ways that regularly violate citizens’ fundamental human rights.

The report also documents which companies, from which countries, are supplying which types of surveillance technology to African governments.

The editor of the report Tony Roberts who is a Research Fellow at the IDS, said: “Under the pretext of national security, governments are exceeding their legal powers of surveillance and they do so with impunity, even when caught red handed.”

So far it has been established that Ghana has acquired mass surveillance technology that include Pegasus from NSO an Israeli company, received a donation of the UFED spyware developed by Cellebrite, also an Israeli company, from the UK, US government and Interpol. The technology for the so-called safe cities was obtained from Chinese company, Huawei.

Despite the information in the public domain, including the potential of the breach of privacy and abuse of the rights of citizens, the Ghanaian public has generally been unconcerned.

By Emmanuel K Dogbevi
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