By Heidi Swart • 6 April 2021
Heidi Swart is a journalist who reports on surveillance and data privacy. This story was commissioned by the Media Policy and Democracy Project, an initiative of the University of Johannesburg’s Department of Journalism, Film and TV and Unisa’s Department of Communication Science.
It’s the beginning: 5G will bring radical changes in how we live, with far-reaching implications for privacy and surveillance. Although the tech is new, decades-old legislation* already paves the way for South African authorities to access citizens’ information through their personal smart devices.
Imagine a world where police no longer needed human witnesses. One where they could determine that, while inside your home, you walked exactly 453m between 9.18am and 10.05am? Or perhaps they could prove that you’re lying, since they have medical records reflecting your cardiac rhythms during a specific timeframe? These are actual cases where police in the US traced minute details of people’s lives through their smart devices. In the former, a woman’s Fitbit proved her husband lied about her movements on the morning of her murder. In the latter, a man’s pacemaker gave him away in an arson investigation.
This is what evidence will increasingly look like as we move towards the world of 5G, where smart homes and cities become the norm. While 2G and 3G are still the most widely available networks in South Africa, cities are already changing. Since 2019, Rain, Vodacom and MTN have all launched 5G networks.
To see the drastic impact of 5G on government surveillance, it helps to take a step back.