Zimbabwe’s leading civil society groups have petitioned the High Court seeking to block a lower court order requiring Econet Wireless to hand over its subscribers’ information.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa led government is accusing the country’s largest mobile operator Econet Wireless through its mobile money platform Ecocash for money laundering.

Ecocash is owned by Cassava SmarTech Zimbabwe Limited after Econet Wireless unbundled its financial technology wing into a separate entity in 2018.

The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe believes that Ecocash is creating non-existing electronic money to purchase foreign currency and the police on July 17, 2020 were granted a search warrant for Econet Wireless to provide a list of all subscribers both registered and unregistered in their database with full subscriber details for the period January to June 30, 2020.

The subscriber details include personal information such as residential or work addresses, cell phone numbers and national identity numbers.

Media Institute of southern Africa-Zimbabwe Chapter (Misa-Zimbabwe) and the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (Zimrights) have filed an urgent application with the High Court for an order interdicting Econet Wireless and the State from implementing a police warrant seeking information on the mobile phone operator’s transactions.

“Econet holds quite a sizable number of personal information for the people of Zimbabwe. Remember they have a near monopoly in terms of telecoms. This means that there are a lot of people whose information is at stake here,” Misa-Zimbabwe director Thabani Moyo told Biztech Africa. 

“In this wide search and seizure warrant, it is highly likely that the right to privacy is going to be fringed upon.  That is why Misa-Zimbabwe and ZimRights have joined hands and petitioned the courts with the hope that they are going to help us to stop this wanton infringement on the constitutionally guaranteed right to privacy.”

“It is a violation of citizens’ rights to privacy. However, the major problem is that the country has no designated law that looks at data protection wholesome, instead, it has in its statutes, several laws that make up the country’s data protection policy and regulatory framework,” Koliwe Majama a coordinator at the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms told Bizetech Africa.

“It is this fragmentation of laws that causes a challenge for particularly the protection of private information of the citizens. While the warrant is issued under the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act (Chapter 9), Ecocash based on its privacy policy are obliged to protect citizens' personal information on their platform.”

The Cybersecurity and Data Protection Bill which seeks to govern information and communications technology related issues in the country is still before Parliament.

Majama said the search warrant is in clear violation of regional and international laws that speak on confidentiality, integrity, availability and survival of information and communication technology systems.

Ecocash controls 91.2 percent market share of mobile money subscriptions in the southern African nation with over 7 million users, according to the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz)’s first quarter 2020 report.

In terms of mobile subscriptions Econet holds 69.8 percent market share of active mobile subscriptions in the country with more than 9.5 million subscribers, according to the above Potraz report.

Econet has also filed a court application to stop the warrant search saying “the warrant of search and seizure is unlawful and constitutes a violation of the applicant’s right to privacy and also the right of privacy of the applicant’s subscribers.”

In May this year, Ecocash dragged RBZ to court over a directive to suspend thousands of its agent lines suspected of illegal forex trading in which the former lost. The government also suspended mobile money in late June to curb foreign currency trading.

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