Twitter helped South African police track down July riots instigators

Major social media companies, including Twitter, helped the Hawks track down some of the alleged instigators of violent looting in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng that shook South Africa in July 2021.

That is according to a City Press report detailing an elaborate year-long investigation leading to the arrest of 20 suspects who appeared in the Durban Magistrates’ Court on Friday, 12 August 2022.

The suspects — which included a doctor, teacher, hospital manager and private banker — were released on R3,000 bail each and are set to be charged with conspiracy and incitement to commit public violence and arson.

The days-long looting and destruction that followed the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma cost the province tens of billions of rand.

Large retailers like Massmart, the logistics sector, and smaller businesses like doctors’ practices and shopkeepers still feel the effects of the riots over a year later.

According to the South African Special Risk Insurance Association (Sasria), it was the most costly incident of rioting in the world in the past decade, surpassing the damages caused in 20 US states in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing by police in May 2021.

Durban and Pietermaritzburg endured the brunt of the violence and suffered the vandalising and burning of shops, malls, factories, storage facilities, and distribution centres.

The chaos and civilian response to the attacks led to the deaths of almost 350 people.

Makro looted
One Makro store was not only emptied of all its stocked goods but also lost the solar panels in its parking lot to looters.

The first 20 suspects were reportedly tracked down through their Twitter accounts.

A Hawks official close to the matter told City Press that Twitter shared their personal details — including email addresses, cellphone numbers, and dates of birth — with the police.

That enabled a combined investigating team — consisting of various law enforcement entities such as crime intelligence and SAPS’s cybercrime unit — to determine their physical addresses and employers.

“This was a lengthy investigation that mainly relied on information being supplied by the owners of social media platforms,” the source said, without naming any other social media companies than Twitter.

“Once that had been done, the Hawks further investigated the proximity of the suspects to where the looting and damage to property took place.”

The source has also revealed that a joint investigation by the National Prosecuting Authority’s Investigating Directorate and the Hawks would see a further 64 suspects from across the country taken to court in the coming weeks.

Several high-profile individuals — including Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla, one of former president Jacob Zuma’s daughters — used Twitter to call for or voice their approval for the violence.

Zuma-Sambundla’s made her calls to action under the hashtags #FreeJacobZuma and #RamaphosaMustFall.

According to the report, several witnesses had implicated Zuma-Samundla through her posts on social media. Still, Hawks head Godfrey Lebeya could not confirm whether she was included among the additional suspects.

Duduzile Zuma-Sambundla
Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla

One of the biggest challenges that investigators face is that many of the alleged instigators — particularly those based in Gauteng — used WhatsApp to communicate their plans.

The popular chat platform comes with end-to-end encryption, which means there is no way for its owner or a third party to intercept the contents of a message.

“WhatsApp does not store messages once they are delivered or transaction logs of such delivered messages, and undelivered messages are deleted from our servers after 30 days,” the company explains.

While this ensures optimal privacy during communication, it makes it difficult to determine when users abuse the platform to facilitate criminal activities.

WhatsApp’s parent company Meta Platforms often punts encryption as one of the essential features of the chat platform and has started extending it to other products like Facebook Messenger.

But the company is facing significant pressure from lawmakers in the US, UK, and Europe to clamp down on the use of WhatsApp to facilitate crime, particularly the sharing of child sexual abuse material.

Activists are calling on the company to proactively scan messages using artificial intelligence and human moderation.

However, WhatsApp has remained steadfast that it would not compromise the privacy of most of its law-abiding user base to solve an issue that a minority of its users are guilty of.

The company does offer the ability to request data from an account suspected to be involved in illegal activity using its Law Enforcement Online Request System.

This data might include profile photos, group information, address books, and undelivered messages pending on its servers.

Now read: Instagram and Facebook in-app browsers track all user activity

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Twitter helped South African police track down July riots instigators