China is facing allegations that it is helping the Zambian government with deep packet inspection technology to eavesdrop, mine data, censor and intercept communications.
The allegations come less than two years after the Chinese government was accused of helping the Ethiopian government block news websites in Ethiopia and jam Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT) and other broadcasters including the Voice of America and Germany's Deutsche Welle Amharic service.
Deep packet inspection technology (DPI) allows monitoring of traffic from a specific IP address and enables the ability to spy on email even as it is being typed out by the user. The Zambian government reportedly intends to introduce the monitoring mechanism to vet Internet services coming in and out of the country.
Zambian and Chinese security officials have reportedly been traveling between the two countries for the project, expected to cost the Zambian government over $5 million.
Officials from the country's three mobile operators -- MTN, Airtel and Zamtel -- and some ISPs have confirmed on condition of anonymity that in the past week, members of the Office of the President (OP) have been visiting them in an attempt to facilitate monitoring of e-mail and voice communications.
Zambian Minister of Information and Broadcasting Kennedy Sakeni and Chinese embassy officials declined to comment about the reports. However, the Zambian government has made it clear in the recent past that it wants to monitor popular social media networks including Facebook and Twitter as well as blogs and e-mails, and block unfriendly news websites.
"The introduction of communication monitoring would clearly undermine civil liberties because the office of the president can snoop on all e-mails and internet traffic," opposition National Restoration Party President Elias Chipimo told Computerworld Zambia Feb. 19.
Zambia joins many African countries that consider social media networks to be tools for promoting unrest, after successful uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia toppled the governments in those nations.
Just last month, the Zambian government said it had finished drafting a law that will see the closure of online newspapers that are critical of the Zambian government.
Over the past year, the Zambian government through the Zambia Information and Communication Technology Authority (ZICTA), the country's telecom sector regulator, tried in vain to close some online publications, including the Zambian Watchdog. Attempts to close some of the sites, including the Zambian Watchdog, failed because they are hosted outside the country. The Zambian Watchdog is an online newspaper that is critical of the Zambian government.
Official distrust of social media is growing in Africa because it is seen as a platform used mainly by youths to plan and coordinate their plans regarding government issues.
"Most of the bloggers who insults the head of state everyday and daring the government were young people between the ages of 25 and 45," Sakeni told the media this week.
In Malawi, the government has already passed a law allowing government officials to censor what citizens do online. It seeks to regulate and control online communications including social media networks in the country. For example, the law requires that editors of online publications reveal to officials their names, home addresses and telephone numbers in addition to other information.
The Malawian law further introduces the concept of government-appointed cyber-inspectors who have the power to, among other things, monitor and inspect websites or activity on any information system in the public domain and report any unlawful activity to the regulator.