South African police can now legally use cellphone spying tools and trackers

Justice minister Ronald Lamola, on Friday, 19 May 2023, gazetted a five-year exemption from the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-related Information Act (RICA), effectively giving police the right to use a range of what would otherwise be illegal surveillance devices.

The exemption means the South African Police Service (SAPS) can buy and use signal interception devices to access details about any cellular device in a given area — approval for which previous Justice ministers consistently withheld.

Among these are International Mobile Subscriber Identifier (IMSI) catchers, or “grabbers” — eavesdropping devices masquerading as regular cellular towers that harvest data from every mobile device connected to them.

Theoretically, the police will be able to map the data gathered in this way to a person’s identity, as RICA requires telecommunications service providers to collect identifying information when you sign up.

In addition to IMSI-catchers, the SAPS may use hardware keystroke recorders, night vision and thermal imaging equipment, wiretaps, eavesdropping microphones, miniature video and audio recorders, and location tracking devices.

Ronald Lamola, Minister of Justice and Correctional Services

Lamola granted the extension in terms of Section 46(3) of RICA.

It essentially gives the Justice Minister the right to exempt Internet service providers, telecommunications service providers, and law enforcement agencies from specific prohibitions, including the manufacture, possession, and use of the equipment listed above.

However, it states this must be done in consultation with other relevant ministers.

In the gazette notification, Lamola said he had sign-off from the ministers of communications, defence, state security, and police in granting the exemption.

Several conditions must be met with regard to the exemption, including:

  • Listed equipment can only be possessed, purchased, manufactured, assembled and used to the extent specified in the Act;
  • The National Commissioner must personally authorise the purchasing of IMSI-catchers, their necessary equipment, and the software they require; and,
  • All listed equipment and any necessary components must be marked with a non-alterable identifier.
Bheki Cele, Minister of Police

The issue of whether the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development should allow law enforcement officials to use such surveillance question has been ongoing for some time.

In July 2022, Lamola said progress was being made on Police Minister Bheki Cele’s application for an exemption to use R102 million worth of unlawfully purchased spy equipment.

“The minister of police did apply for an exemption on at least two occasions in the past,” Lamola’s spokesperson said.

“The exemption application process requires the minister of defence and military veterans, the minister of state security and the minister of communications and digital technologies to concur.”

“Progress has been made recently in this regard, and the minister of justice and correctional services will shortly be processing the request,” they added.

Before this, the police minister’s application for a certificate of exemption was declined twice. Cele reportedly only submitted the first application nine months after Crime Intelligence procured the spy equipment.

Just a few months earlier, it was reported that Police Intelligence spent just under R112 million to acquire 13 grabbers, 15 surveillance drones, and 12 precise mobile location vehicles.

However, the equipment supposedly sat gathering dust as the SAPS weren’t even entitled to purchase the equipment, never mind use it. It was delivered in early 2020.

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South African police can now legally use cellphone spying tools and trackers