Joburg council ‘has spies’: Councillors suspect digital spying activities

Johannesburg council members raise concerns about digital spying activities as allegations of espionage and misuse of equipment emerge.

Johannesburg chair of chairs Lloyd Phillips says he believes there are people spying on councillors using digital forensic equipment.

Phillips was responding to The Citizen’s question during a media briefing in the Group Forensic and Investigation Service (GFIS) equilibrium in Braamfontein yesterday.

Last month, council speaker Colleen Makhubele authorised a probe into the conduct of GFIS as well as former city leaders who are alleged to have misused the corruption-busting entity.

Makhubele accused the previous Democratic Alliance-led administration of secretly spending R20 million on digital forensic equipment, which was used to spy on councillors.

An independent senior counsel has since been tasked to do the preliminary investigation on the matter. Asked whether he believed there were spies in the council, Phillips said it was only logical to have spies when there was what was potentially spy or counterintelligence equipment.

“What are we doing with it? We cannot account for what we are doing with it in the first place. This can only indicate that there is a certain shadow or third force that is snooping on our private spaces. This is the only reason we have this,” he said.

“If you are asking me personally if I believe [there are spies], there has to be, because we have spy equipment.”

Phillips said there had been complaints of people’s private spaces being infiltrated.

“The point here is that councillors and officials are at risk with having this kind of equipment around because now our privacy is basically being invaded,” he said.

“Our tools of trade (cellphones) are subject to scrutiny if there’s a need. The last thing we want is having another piece of equipment to further violate our space.

” He said the finance department would decide what to do with the equipment to salvage some of the money used to buy it.

“There is also the option of donating it to the State Security Agency because we wouldn’t want to further extend this kind of use to somebody else, as opposed to just returning it to the unit that is authorised to be working with this kind of equipment,” he said.

Makhubele said she was one of the people targeted by the spy equipment. She said there was a 200-page report done on her which analysed her life, her cellphone and everything she does.

“We do not know who sanctioned that report, which machines were used, and I am not the only councillor subjected to that without my consent, without my knowledge. There have been a couple of reports submitted to the senior council,” she said.

“It is important that even with all these reports that are there and we do not know of what was the origin, what was the intention [for this equipment].

“What is still very much concerning for us is: who has these reports pertaining to councillors, for what purpose… what happens to it and how safe are you then as a person when you are so naked to people that you don’t even know?”