Nowhere to hide: The Kenyan Government’s equipment that can “listen in” to your phone conversations

The Kenyan government has been intercepting telecommunications to facilitate the arrest, disappearance and extrajudicial murder of terror suspects. This is according to a new report by Privacy International, a UK based non-governmental organization that investigates the secret world of government surveillance and the companies that enable it.

The damning report titled “Track, Capture, Kill: Inside Communications Surveillance and Counterterrorism in Kenya” unmasks how the National Intelligence Service (NIS) infiltrates telecommunication networks and obtains data which is then used to track down suspects.

“Communications surveillance in Kenya is conducted outside any effective regulatory oversight. The National Intelligence Service (NIS) in particular is operating outside of any meaningful constraints on its far-reaching surveillance powers” – Dr Gus Hosein, Executive Director of Privacy International.


The NIS allegedly has devices that allow their agents to geolocate a target through their mobile phones

Dozens of Kenyans have in the past disappeared without trace or found murdered in cold blood with the government repeatedly denying any involvement. Under the guise of fighting terrorism, the NIS demands telecommunication providers to surrender information about their subscribers without judicial warrant, states the report. Any reluctance to give out the information is usually countered by threats of revoking their licenses.

According to Privacy International, the NIS has direct connection to telecommunication networks and can thus obtain content even without the involvement of the network providers. This creates an avenue for abusive practices and gross violation of human rights. The fact that other security agencies heavily rely on the NIS which is subject to negligible oversight exacerbates the situation.

According to the report, by being physically present within the facilities of telecommunications operators, security agents serve as conduits of information deemed valuable.

“At Safaricom, around ten CID officers sit in their own office on one floor of the Safaricom central bloc. They provide information to all police branches,” reads the report in part.

Safaricom has denied these claims stating that although it works closely with law enforcement officers to safeguard the integrity of its mobile money transactions and to provide information required by courts in the administration of justice, it does not have a specific office space for them.

Additionally, Safaricom stated that “only authorised Safaricom staff have access to systems and tools that can access confidential customer information and this access is controlled and monitored.”

The report contains statements from multiple sources including current and former law enforcement, military or intelligence officers. Two NIS sources alleged that the agency analyzes and listens to live calls at its offices both regionally and in Nairobi. Mobile phone numbers of interest are ‘flagged’ and their calls monitored through NIS-owned base transceiver stations (BTS).

“Once we get a red light on this particular person, we try checking the contents of his conversation. If it’s trash we just discard it. If it’s something of interest, we make a move and follow it up,” a NIS agent states in the report.

The NIS has devices which allow its agents to geolocate targets through their mobile phones. The information is then fed into an interface linked to a database containing live BTS location data and call data records.

“Intelligence gained by intercepting phone communications, primarily by the NIS, is provided regularly to units of the police to carry out counterterrorism operations, particularly the GSU-Recce company and Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU).”

Before an operation takes places, the Recce hit squad meets with ATPU and NIS agents. The NIS officers give the first brief and sometimes lead the troops to the target area. Once on location, the NIS points out the target. A NIS field agent quoted in the report explains how the operation ends: “We [NIS] tell them ‘the mark is here. He’s dressed this way.’ They just get him, pick him, no questions.”

According to the report which was released today (15th March 2017), Kenya’s Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) too has the ability to “intercept live phone calls provided the agent is within the range of the BTS with which an individual target’s device is communicating.”

The DMI also gathers operational intelligence areas bordering Somalia in North East Kenya. It does this using the ‘Blackbird’ product, a “Signal Search, Collection, Geolocation and Analysis System” from SPX, a US spectrum monitoring company. In the period between 2010 and 2011, the Directorate of Criminal Investigations had mobile off-the-air interception devices acquired from Israeli tech company Verint.


Screenshot from the Privacy International report

The outcome of security agencies abusing their communication surveillance has been increased summary executions of crime suspects. Many suspects especially those linked to terrorism hardly reach courts of law to answer to charges let alone defend themselves. In the first eight months of 2016, police officers killed 122 people according to the Independent Police Oversight Authority. In the same year, a study by the Independent Medico Legal Unit (IMLU) revealed that one in three Kenyans had been subject to ill treatment at the hands of the police. A year earlier, IMLU reported 126 deaths of civilians carried out by police out of which 97 were brutal murders.

Among those who have been executed in recent years include Muslim clerics Sheikh Aboud Rogo (killed on 27th August 2012), Sheikh Ibrahim Rogo (killed on 3rd October 2013), and Sheikh Abubakar  Shariff alias “Makaburi” who was gunned down on 1st April 2014 not long after predicting he would be killed. Four months after Makaburi’s death, a Mombasa entrepreneur Hassan Nasrulla Musa popularly known as “Guti” was shot and killed by persons believed to be from ATPU. He and his wife were travelling in their car along Mwembe Tayari road in Mombasa when they came under a hail of bullets. Hassan is said to have been on the police watch list. The existence of NIS-owned BTSes at the Kenyan coast, whose presence was confirmed by sources quoted in the Privacy International report, could have been instrumental in identifying the suspects.

Watch “Call the Executioner, Part 1” courtesy of KTN

Extrajudicial killings have also been witnessed in other areas apart from the Kenyan coast. A classic example is the murder of human rights lawyer Willie Kimani which shook the entire country and grabbed international headlines. Willie, his client and their driver were coming from the court when they were stopped by police. That was the last time they were seen alive. A week later, their bodies were discovered several kilometers away. A postmortem revealed that they had been tortured before being killed. At least three police officers have since been charged with the murders.

There are however those who have never been found like Garrisa businessman Hamza Mohammed despite his kidnapping being caught on camera. Hamza was in his M-Pesa shop when four men believed to be officers from ATPU walked in posing as customers. Shortly thereafter, one of them grabbed and led him out of the shop. He was then bundled into a Landcruiser vehicle and has never been seen again.

A similar incident unfolded in Nairobi’s downtown on October 2014 when businessman Ali Aden Omar was picked by anti-terror officers and bundled into the boot of an unmarked car. Fortunately, there were journalists at the scene filming and perhaps this is what led to his release a week later. It emerged later on that he was involved in a property dispute with someone who allegedly used the anti-terror unit to get even.

Watch “Where are our children?, Part 1” by Africa Uncensored here:

But even as the Kenyan government’s unfettered power for communications surveillance becomes more apparent, its counterterrorism budget keeps growing. The Privacy International report says that the 2017 budgetary allocation for the Kenya Defence Forces and NIS was Sh 124 billion (USD 1.24 billion) up from Sh 98 billion (USD 980 million) the previous year. Foreign counterterrorism assistance has also greatly increased with the US giving out USD 100 million in 2015 compared to its support of USD 38 million in 2014.

The Communications Authority of Kenya (CA), Kenya’s telecommunications industry regulator, has compounded the situation with its plans to monitor Kenyans’ communications and communication devices. The move is ostensibly meant to prevent a recurrence of the 2007/2008 post-election violence. When details of CA’s communication surveillance system leaked to the public last month, CA strongly defended it insisting it was designed to deny service to illegal communication devices. CA however did not clarify why the system would require access to Kenyans’ call data records (CDRs) or home location records.

CA Director of Licensing Compliance and Standards Chris Kemei told Privacy International that analysis of CDR data was necessary to establish broad patterns of traffic which may indicate illegal activity such as SIM boxing, “but only in cases where there is that suspicion…we can use that system to confirm whether that is the case or not”.

“The pressure on telecommunications providers to provide information, both with and without warrants, as well as the vagueness and laxity in existing communications surveillance laws, make it unlikely that surveillance practices will be reported and scrutinized,” states the report by Privacy International.

Africa Uncensored reached out to the Cabinet Secretary for Interior Joseph Nkaissery to verify the claims made by Privacy International but our calls went answered. The Kenya Defence Forces Public Affairs office told us that it does not have the capacity to intercept live calls.

The Security Laws (Amendment) Act empowers the Director General of the NIS to initiate covert operations and authorize any member of the intelligence service of any rank to monitor communications as well as seize material from private property. Hundreds of Kenyans have in the past been killed in terror attacks in Nairobi, Mombasa, Mpeketoni, Garissa, and Mandera among others. The work of intelligence community in averting such attacks is crucial but how far should they go in circumventing the law and where does this leave the privacy of Kenyans?

Watch “The Killers’ Corridor” courtesy of KTN here:

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Kabugi Mbae

Kabugi Mbae is a reporter at Africa Uncensored.
He is passionate about reporting on issues that impact the lives of ordinary people through TV stories and in-depth news articles. He holds a BA in Journalism from Maseno University.

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