Online surveillance and censorship in Sudan

Author's name: 
Liemia Eljaili Abubkr
SUDAN

Background

In Sudan there are four licensed telecommunications companies – Sudani, Zain, MTN and Canar ‒ which provide both internet and mobile phone services. Zain, MTN and Canar are foreign-owned companies, while the government owns 22% percent of Sudani shares and the rest are owned by private investors. In 2010 these companies began providing affordable mobile phone internet services.

Recently, members of parliament began condemning censorship of and spying on opposition communications by the Sudanese security forces and calling for a law amendment. In February 2014 the head of the communications committee in the National Assembly claimed that spying on phone calls and internet censorship would stop.

But on 27 March 2014, government officials declared that more internet websites would be 100% banned during the coming days because they spread false information about government activities. Mustafa Abed Elhafis, a board member of NTC, the Sudanese telecoms regulator, informed Sudan Media Center (SMC) that in the coming days all websites that spread false information on current political situations, particularly security situations, would be blocked. In addition, websites that violate Muslim norms and “threaten Sudanese ethics and culture” would also be blocked. This means more restrictions on freedom of expression, more filtering, and more surveillance.

Sudan has a website filtering system organised by the NTC, which divides websites into various categories, including pornographic websites and websites related to drugs, bombs, alcohol, abuse of the true Islamic religion, and gambling. In reality, however, the filtering system focuses on political, news and opposition websites.

In 2011, Sudan established a special unit called the “Cyber Jihadist Unit” and imported remote control systems (RCS) and sophisticated computer spyware to manipulate information and spy on government opponents, journalists, human rights activists and various youth groups.

A report published in February 2014 by the Citizen Lab documented the Cyber Jihadist Unit’s use of advanced equipment, often imported from Italian companies, to filter web content, censor emails and other internet communications, and spy on the political opposition and journalists. According to the report, “The NSA and GCHQ, Ethiopia’s Information Network Security Agency, Saudi Arabia’s Internet Services Unit, Belarus’ Operations and Analysis Centre, Russia’s FSB and Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Service are all security agencies that have gone far beyond their core duties by censoring or spying on journalists and other information providers.”

During massive street demonstrations in June 2012 and September-October 2013, the Cyber Jihadist Unit ramped up its efforts to censor anti-government content, target cyber dissidents and manipulate online information. More than 200 IT specialists working in this unit, based at the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) head offices, proactively monitor content posted on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and news and public forums like Sudanese Online, Sudan for all, Hurryat and Elrakoba. The unit also infiltrates online discussions in an effort to ascertain information about cyber dissidents as well as to spread misinformation, instigate problems between users, and discredit information written by members of the forum.

During mass demonstrations, the government either cuts off internet access or slows it down. For example, during the September-October 2013 demonstrations that followed the removal of governmental oil subsidies, the security forces cut off internet access for 24 hours to prevent the spreading of news and protest photos. They did the same during the June 2012 waves of demonstrations, when internet service was cut off for eight hours. During the internet blackout, many reported that even SMS messages were blocked, and services such as tweeting via SMS were interrupted.

During the June 2012 protests, social media sites were increasingly monitored by the Cyber Jihadist Unit and used to follow and detain activists. According to activists, the security forces asked them to reveal their email passwords.

Legal framework

The Informatics Crimes Law of 2007 focuses on the following:

  • Crimes on money, data, communications and threats of blackmail
  • Access to sites and information systems owned by non-governmental bodies
  • Intellectual property crimes
  • Crimes of public order and morals.

There is a law proposal that has been developed and is in the process of discussion. Unfortunately, the discussion process is taking place away from media experts and civil society organisations. According to information published in some media channels, the proposed law aims to protect government officials against hacking or destruction, and establishes reasons for website blocking under the excuse of violations and erosion of Islamic norms and Sudanese culture and ethics.

Challenges

While the government has spent huge amounts of money on raising the capacity of its staff and importing advanced equipment, human rights defenders (HRDs), journalists and activists lack proper training and skills to protect themselves and their online activities. Added to that, as a result of the US digital technology embargo on Sudan, many journalists and HRDs lack access to various ICTs and new media tools. Sudanese cannot buy original software, nor access training or courses online. This situation negatively affects HRDs, journalists, students and activists.

Liemia Eljaili Abubkr, project coordinator, Al Alag press services centre, March 2014

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