Are you being watched online?

A recent Noseweek article entitled ‘Watching me, watching you. MTN’s spying game’ reported that “When a client complained to MTN about his massive bill the company threatened to expose the fact that he had been surfing porn sites.”

This accusation aimed at MTN raises concerns about privacy protection, and further begs the question as to whether local broadband providers are monitoring the online activities of subscribers and are willing to divulge such information.

Privacy guaranteed by Broadband providers

According to local broadband providers their subscribers have nothing to fear in terms of online privacy.

Telkom said that it does not record and store their subscribers’ online activities, adding that they will never reveal private information without a court order.

Vodacom said that they do not monitor their customer’s online activity at all, and that any information which they may have about their clients will not be shared with any party without them following the necessary legal channels.

iBurst also put their subscribers’ minds at ease, saying that it does not monitor, record or log specific user activity in any way whatsoever. 

“While iBurst fully support the relevant interception regulations, these interceptions can only start once a legal court order has been obtained,” said iBurst CEO Jannie van Zyl. “Interception is then performed by the authority itself using its own equipment. iBurst does not maintain any database of user activity outside the total amount of bandwidth consumed per subscriber.”

Van Zyl added that they will never share information with a third party without the proper authorization. “Within the constraints of South African legislation, iBurst believe the internet should be free and how any subscriber use his or her bandwidth is a personal matter,” said Van Zyl.

MTN explains

MTN said that it does not store records of subscribers’ online activity, nor did it threaten to reveal information.

“What happened was that a customer complained about an invoice and asked us to investigate the charge, which he felt was too high. To perform this verification as the customer had requested, we listed the web sites visited and the duration of those connections during the billing period. These details are available to the customer should he request them,” said MTN.

“We have reviewed the tape of the conversation with the customer following his complaint, and are satisfied that there was no attempt to bully or threaten the customer because of the nature of the sites visited,” said MTN.

“The customer demanded a reduction, accused us of threatening him and in turn threatened to take the matter to the media. The customer was advised, politely, that it was his right to take the matter public if he wished, but that he may not want the nature of some of the sites visited to become public knowledge.”

“There was no actual direct reference made to porn, although that is where it pointed.”

Illegal to monitor usage without authorization

According to one industry expert, who asked not to be named, it is unlikely that a broadband provider would go through the trouble of monitoring and storing the online activities of their users without being forced to do this legally.  “The amount of data is staggering and of what use will it be?” he said.

The monitoring of Internet activity is further illegal without the consent of the user. The Regulation of Interception of Communications Act stipulates that Internet activity may not be intercepted or monitored without the prior written consent of the user, and doing so is a criminal offence.

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Are you being watched online?