Phone Companies Fight Back Against West African Nation's Mass Surveillance Bid

Exclusive: A coalition of phone companies, including Orange, are resisting a bid by the government of Guinea to hand over their customers' data.

A group of international phone companies is fighting a bid by Guinea, one of West Africa's poorest nations, to hand over data on all of their subscribers, documents seen by BuzzFeed News reveal.

On 6 January, the country's four leading telecoms companies – Orange, MTN, Cellcom, and Intercell – received a letter from their regulator saying the government was to "set up a control centre and monitor traffic", and demanding the companies provide information on their subscribers as well as the records of all calls made in December 2015.

These records, known as CDRs, don't hold the contents of a phone call, but can include the phone numbers of both parties on the call, when it happened, its duration, and even the approximate location of the people making the call.

It is these CDRs that were stored under the NSA's bulk phone collection programme revealed by Edward Snowden (and discontinued in the ensuing row), and which the UK's new investigatory powers bill – known by opponents as the "Snoopers' Charter" – wishes to solidify.

However, unlike the UK and USA programmes, the Guinean proposal contained no information on how to use the data collected, nor any information on oversight or legal safeguards.

Guinea has operated as a fledgling democracy since emerging from rule by a military junta in 2010. In recent years it has withstood the Ebola outbreak, as well as a number of regional disputes and border tensions. The country scores poorly on the press freedom index and there is mounting tension between ethnic groups in the nation. The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office no longer advise against all but essential travel to the country, but did issue a recent request "to be vigilant" after the recent al-Qaeda attack in Burkina Faso.

The country's government appeared keen to get the surveillance information in a hurry. A follow-up letter on 14 January told the companies they had a "legal obligation" to hand over the information and warned they had seven days to provide it. If not, they could face rolling daily fines of 5 million Guinean francs (around $800) per day, or "criminal sanctions".

Five days later, three of the four phone companies – Orange, MTN, and Cellcom – wrote a joint letter strongly opposing the government's surveillance request. Rather than being a lawful request, the companies argued, the Guinean government's proposed centre had a "total absence of any legal basis".

The request for the nation's call records, the joint letter said, violated protections "relating to private life and protection of personal data" in Guinea's law, as well as the country's constitution and the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

"Given all the above," the companies wrote, "we prefer to refrain from providing the requested information for the above reasons and, until the development and implementation by the regulatory authority of clear and detailed guidelines to license holders, supported by appropriate legislation."

Intercel, which is owned by Sudatel, a company majority-controlled by the Sudanese state, did not join the action.

Mark Stephens, a UK-based human rights lawyer with Howard Kennedy LLP, said Guinea's move was a concerning one for activists and journalists within the nation, and warned that the move may be one of many to come in the light of mass-surveillance activities by Western governments.

"This will undoubtably be the first of a series of retrograde steps inspired by the UK's Snoopers' Charter 2.0, where data on each and every citizen is collected and made available to the state without any judicial oversight," he told BuzzFeed News.

"It's of particular concern in a country like Guinea that the government haven't vouchsafed any limits of what and when the data will be used for and there must be a lot of journalistic sources, NGO sources and opposition politicians who are feeling very nervous today."

BuzzFeed News contacted the Guinean government via its UK embassy, as well as the four telecoms companies named in the correspondence, but none had returned the request for comment by the time of publication.

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