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Surveillance in the Overlooked Corners of Africa

BY Jessica McKenzie | Tuesday, March 4 2014

Screenshot of Appelbaum and Marques

In the video below, filmed during the Oslo Freedom Forum in May 2013, Jacob Appelbaum breaks it to Rafael Marques, an Angolan investigative journalist and anti-corruption activist, that his laptop is being surveilled through a crude backdoor in spite of the fact that he is using Tor. He opens up a file where they can see all the images that have been stored and are waiting to be collected by the hackers. Appelbaum tells an understandably concerned Marques: “Every computer that's targeted is compromisable.”

“They see everything you're writing, all the time, endlessly,” Appelbaum adds.

One defining characteristic of the spyware infecting Marques' computer is that it is simplistic.

As Appelbaum says in the video:

I mean they're not even very good. I mean, this is like a backdoor that I would've written as a freshman in college or something it's just like a joke. It's like literally who are these guys are they seriously running a government? That's embarrassing.

Marques makes the sage observation that maybe the hackers were just doing the bare minimum because they know he doesn't have the resources to buy a new computer or otherwise protect himself.

(Incidentally, Marques was arrested and beaten months after Appelbaum discovered the spyware on his computer.)

Since then, Global Voices contributor Janet Gunter reports that Marques has begun tracking the issue of surveillance in Angola, one of many African countries perceived as being “less important” that Gunter says have been excluded from much of the public discourse about data security and surveillance.

In October 2013 Marques presented a paper titled “The Threat of a Draconian Cybercrime Law in Angola” to a United Nations conference on Internet governance.

He concluded his talk with:

In Angola, we have yet to become part of the more serious discussions on internet governance that have been animating the international arena for quite a while. We remain at the margins, and we need to start doing our homework to catch up.

In her Global Voices report, Gunter hypothesizes:

One reason [there is so little discussion about data security and surveillance in Angola] may be that real-world, physical surveillance and infiltration – with some of the intelligence agents trained in the ex-Soviet Bloc – is so pervasive that activists and journalists do not feel any particular urgency about protecting their online activities.

That, however, is precisely what Marques is trying to change.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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