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Can Zimbabwe monitor email? It may not matter.

When I was in Zimbabwe last September, debate over a proposed interception of communications bill was the major topic of conversation in the Zimbabwean internet community. The bill would give certain members of the Zimbabwean government – notably Zimbabwe’s secret police and revenue authorities – the ability to monitor postal, telephone and internet traffic with authorization from certain Ministers if there were “reasonable grounds for the Minister to believe (among other things) that a serious offence has been or is being or will probably be committed or that there is threat to safety or national security of the country.” At the time, Zimbabwe’s largest internet provider had its net access throttled back for nonpayment of bills, and it seemed safe to assume that a country heading for economic collapse had better things to do than to build communications monitoring facilities.

Almost a year later, the bill passed into law, and there are early signs that companies are taking steps to come into compliance with the law.

But it’s worth reading between the lines. The chairman of the Zimbabwe Internet Access Providers, a group of three Zimbabwean ISPs, told the Financial Gazette, “We are in the process of complying. We are putting in place projects to see that we comply.” In other words, “We’re not monitoring yet, but we recognize that we can be locked up for three years if we don’t comply, so we’re figuring out how to buy the equipment we’ve just been forced to purchase.”

One of the objections offered by the Zimbabwe ISP association – which fought the interception of communications bill tooth and nail – was that the costs associated with monitoring were borne by the ISPs. Given the precarious state of the Zimbabwean economy (four-digit inflation, massive unemployment, thousands of people fleeing to South Africa every day), it’s likely that ISPs are going to have a hard time getting their hands on the equipment neccesary to intercept communications.

When I talked to ISP owners last September, they told me that people were already self-censoring because of fear that the government would read their email. By talking about an interception of communications bill – even a bill that hadn’t gone into law, and might not be able to be implemented by Zimbabwean ISPs – the Mugabe government managed to create a panopticon. Since successful surveillance should be invisible, the fact that there’s no evidence of surveillance means nothing – if the government says they’re going to monitor your communications, there’s a chance they are, and you might modify your behavior as a result.

Will Zimbabwe start monitoring email? I find that somewhat hard to believe. After all, Zimbabwe has evidently created a blacklist of websitesGlobal Voices included – that are to be banned… but there’s no evidence that access to any of these sites is blocked in any way within Zimbabwe. Blocking sites is much easier to accomplish technically than monitoring email (especially if Zimbabweans switch to using email providers that provide an https:// interface, like GMail.) If they can’t block websites, can they really hope to intercept phonecalls and email?

(The argument had been that China would provide the hardware and expertise to monitor communications. But UK minister Mark Malloch Brown is reporting that China may be pulling back assistance to Zimbabwe, joining the majority of nations in isolating the Mugabe government.)

While I think communication monitoring in Zimbabwe is more likely to be threatened than implemented, friends who know Zimbabwe well have pointed out that my assumptions may be wrong. If the government is sufficiently worried about keeping power, monitoring communications may be a higher priority than paying government salaries, importing petrol or providing basic public services. If Mugabe and ZANU-PF are sufficiently concerned, it’s possible that the last dollars in public coffers will go towards monitoring growing dissent, not towards governing.

It may not matter whether or not the Zimbabwe government is actually monitoring communications – some Zimbabweans are being moved to silence. Zimpundit, who covers Zimbabwe for Global Voices, hasn’t posted to her blog since May. While the brave folks at Sokwanele and Kubatana continue to make their voices heard, some other Zimbabweans writing online have dropped away, either due to the increasing cost of accessing a cybercafe or from fear that big brother is reading over their shoulders.

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