A claim by a group that State House contracted them to hack social media accounts of opponents of President Museveni in the run up to the 2021 elections, has lifted the veil off deepening state espionage against citizens.

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Spy claims open govt to scrutiny

What you need to know:

  • Accusations that the State was spying on government opponents have been revitalised after a group of people petitioned President Museveni over payment for their services after they reportedly hacked into social media accounts of  his opponents.

A claim by a group that State House contracted them to hack social media accounts of opponents of President Museveni in the run-up to the 2021 elections, has lifted the veil off deepening state espionage against citizens and opened the government to criticism over “criminal behaviour”.

Details of what appeared a confidential arrangement became public last week after a letter purportedly authored by the hackers – among them Mr Peter Amanya and Lincoln Mugasho – to State House complaining about lack of payment for the hacking job, leaked.

In the correspondence, the group noted that Astroks Security Services, reportedly owned by businessman Sulaiman Kambalage (SK) Mbuga, contracted them on behalf of State House and, among others, they took down the social media accounts National Unity Platform (NUP) leaders and exiled satirical writer Kakwenza Rukiribashaija.

The faces behind the hacks

In the petition addressed to President Museveni, Mr Amanya and Mr Mugasho, writing on their behalf and of unnamed colleagues, identified themselves as authors of a proposal submitted to the head of State to burnish the image of his government for which “we were entitled to 40 percent of the total budget and an annual service fee[s]”.

The full amount was not disclosed, but the petitioners reported doing “a lot of work” and “to our disappointment, we have not received any funds for the services we have rendered”. 

“We are the team that has been hacking a lot of anti-government people’s social media accounts and we are still doing more work behind the scenes, and some of the recent work was the one of [taking down] Kakwenza’s Twitter account, but he was able to recover his accounts after three days because of lack of facilitation from the State to hack into his mobile phone and emails which would [have] help[ed] us [to] wipe him off the Internet forever,” the authors noted in their October 13 petition to the President.

The law

Interception or unauthorised access to one’s digital information or computer-based communication, which is defined in The Computer Misuse Act, 2010, to include mobile phones handsets, is a criminal offense under the legislation punishable by up Shs4.8 million fine or 10-year imprisonment, or both.

National Unity Platform leaders sing the party anthem before addressing a press conference at the party headquarters in Kamwokya, Kampala on September 21, 2022. Accusations that the State was spying on government opponents have been revitalised after a group of people petitioned President Museveni over payment for their services after they reportedly hacked into social media accounts of  his opponents. PHOTO | MICHAEL KAKUMIRIZI

There is no evidence that the likes of Amanya and Mugasho followed due process and were authorised by court to, in their words to President Museveni in the October 13 letter, wipe off social media accounts of NUP principal Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine, conduct surveillance on its funders and extract information about them that may interest the State.

Insiders said State actors, mainly staff of regular state security and intelligence services, can upon reasonable suspicion and belief that an individual plans to commit a crime or has committed a crime, secure court orders to wiretap conversation of targets or place them under surveillance. 

Two sources with working knowledge of intelligence operations said it is more likely the duo is not part of regular servicemen, which is why they may have sought funding directly from the President and not their employer institution.

The claims by the hackers gained currency after a one Sandra Ndyomugyenyi, on behalf of the principal private secretary to the President, on October 20, wrote to SK Mbuga, the chief executive officer of Atrox Security Company, to bring to his attention complaints lodged against him to President Museveni by the hackers.

“The members complained that they handled top secret work for the government and were to be paid by you. They claimed that … you received part payment from the State House Comptroller and [that] you have not remitted any shillings to them,” Ms Ndyomugyenyi wrote.

However, after both letters leaked, State House, a week later, issued a “clarification”, noting that the “junior staff” of State House made an “error of judgment” and authored the letter without consultation with superiors, prompting UK-based Ugandan human rights lawyer Stephen Lwetutte to liken the mismatch to “uncoordinated movement of forces”.

The divide, he suggested, pointed to likely disagreement about sharing deal proceeds.

“The [State House press] release has the clear effect of maligning and undermining certain State House staff, as well as the integrity, efficiency and effectiveness of the intelligence services,” he noted. 

Neither Information minister Chris Baryomunsi nor Attorney General Kiryowa Kiwanuka was available to speak on the legality of the partisan hack operation that appeared sanctioned at top levels of government.

We were unable to find records about Atrox Security Company at Uganda Registration Services Bureau (USRB), the central government’s repository for registered companies, to establish its owners and members of its board in order to scope their suitability for the cyber-security assignment.

Firms with similar names that pulled up in our searches included Astrocks Security Services Limited, Atrox and Atroks.  URSB officials said the failure to find the specific information about the company in the limelight can be explained to two factors; either incorrect name spelling or the firm is unregistered. 

In an October 2 interview with Sqoop, a weekly magazine of this newspaper, Mr Mbuga, the reported proprietor of Atrox Security Company, said his firm offers services like K9, safe-keeping, guarding, alarm installation, and monitoring. It also provides VIP protection and escort duties; security equipment installation and servicing; private investigations (civil and criminal); cash transit services; and, tracking and recovery.

The hackers, in their petition to President Museveni, boasted about hacking social media accounts of government opponents and critics, “and we are still doing more work behind the scenes”, and broached an assignment to breach Makerere University database during its flopped guild elections, but they were never paid. 

Those polls in which NUP candidate Lawrence Alionzi was the frontrunner were later suspended after a law student of Uganda Christian University was killed in a fracas on the last day of campaigns on Makerere campus.

In interviews for this article, Mr Lewis Rubongoya, the NUP party secretary general, said three accounts owned by his party were hacked during the election period. These included the official Twitter handle and Facebook, as well as the website.

“Then the others were pages of outspoken NUP supporters such as Ghetto TV, MAP Mediya, Ghetto speaker, Ekyooto and many others,” he said, adding, “During the 2021 election, many NUP Twitter and Facebook accounts were hacked and taken over. When we started uploading [election result declaration] forms on our website to expose the grand election theft, it was also taken down!”

Those developments prompted Bobi Wine, who was runner-up in the presidential elections, to challenge Mr Museveni’s victory in court, but he withdrew the petition prematurely, citing a biased Supreme Court. 

Party officials said they were unsure if the State used the information it obtained “illegally” to arrest dozens of their supporters in the run-up up to, during and after last year’s poll. Many emerged from incommunicado incarceration with lifetime injuries, while prosecution of others on a plethora of charges is ongoing. 

When contacted, Mr Amanya, who is named as one of the complainants to State House over pay, denied being part of the team of hackers, although he received our call on the mobile phone number listed on the complaint.

Highly placed sources familiar with the deal said the petitioners have since been gagged from making further comments on the matter due to its “sensitivity” and following questions about the legality of the digital espionage. 

The controversy has drawn public bitterness, with Mawokota South MP Yusuf Nsibambi saying “we are dealing with a state of mafia.”

The Leader of the Opposition in Parliament (LoP), Mr Mathias Mpuuga, said hacking is a criminal offence and that claimants emerging to confess being contracted to break into social media accounts of political opponents is telling about government behaviour.

“Hacking is eternally criminal, and no crime has been committed against the Ugandan society without the tacit collusion of the Ugandan State at various levels!  Murders, enforced disappearances, bijambiya [killings by machete-wielding gangs], election stealing, violence against citizens, to mention but a few,” he said without providing evidence.

Mr Mpuuga said the uniqueness of this latest “criminal act” is that the criminals operate right from the highest office in this land.

“This is the latest warning to all and sundry that no one is safe with this desperate group at the helm of the State. Our teams are studying all possibilities, if Uganda were a democracy, that revelation would have the regime out,” he said.

To Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago, the alleged hackings reveal the “fraudulent and opaque” manner in which the “deep state” operates.  

“If you hire a team to indulge in criminality and that team demands pay from state coffers, it tells volumes about how that country has sunk to its lowest,” he said.

In her October 20 letter, Ms Ndyomugyeni asked the State House Comptroller to halt any further payments to Mr Mbuga, whom he summoned for a meeting with their legal team last Tuesday. We were unable to establish if the meeting took place and, if so, the outcome.

In an interview with this newspaper on Sunday, Mr Mbuga briefly said “those people (complainants) tried to blackmail me, but you know I am a sharp man. They failed”.

He offered no details of the deal or the basis of disagreement.

A source familiar with State House operations said parties in classified operations rarely sign for a deal or money, payment is executed on verbally agreed terms. 

“Money to be used is agreed upon by the parties, but it becomes very difficult to sign. Those are top-class secret agreements often operated under classified budgets,” the source said.

Mr Mbuga declined to respond to our inquiries about ownership of the company in spotlight.

“What are you trying to investigate? Who is interested?” he asked before switching off his mobile phone handset.

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