Azhar Desai Could the Zim government really have shut down WhatsApp? An expert weighs in

It is definitely within the powers of a government to block cellphone users' access to a specific app, such as WhatsApp, and there are different ways of doing so.

Update: National advocacy coordinator of South African group the Right2Know Campaign, Murray Hunter, confirmed via email that the “Warning over social media abuse” did originate from the Post and Telecommunications Authority of Zimbabwe.

This image was widely shared on social media, but it is unclear whether it is really from the Post and Telecommunications Authority of Zimbabwe.Under the protest banner #ShutdownZim2016, Zimbabwe experienced a nationwide strike on Wednesday, reportedly against corruption, import bans and currency shortages.

Early in the day reports started surfacing that instant messaging application WhatsApp stopped working around the country.

It is unclear whether the government really shut the application down. People did share a photographed notice on social media, attributed to the Post and Telecommunications Authority of Zimbabwe, that threatening to identify and prosecute those accused of using social media “that may be deemed to cause despondency”. But this notice did not appear on the authority’s website or elsewhere.

Could the Zimbabwean government really have shut down WhatsApp? How precisely would it do so?

We put these questions to a computer security researcher Azhar Desai.

1. Is it possible to shut down traffic to and from specific cellphone apps?

Yes, it is definitely possible. There are different ways to block apps’ traffic that vary in the crudeness of the blocking and the possibilities for circumventing them. Cruder approaches can inadvertently block more than a single app.

One approach to blocking a single app is for a user’s network operator to block access to specific servers an app relies on. These typically require the cooperation of the major telecommunication companies to implement.

As an example, I recently experienced that some mobile network operators in Egypt block WhatsApp calls but not messages over 3G technology.

2. How plausible is it that the government shut down WhatsApp in Zimbabwe?

News blog Techzim reported that people were unable to use WhatsApp on 6 July for roughly 4 hours (7 am to 11 am) on several telecommunication and internet service providers. Telecommunication providers acknowledged that there was a problem without giving reasons.

Telecommunications provider Econet confirmed that their customers were unable to use WhatsApp. The state-owned TelOne telecommunication company confirmed having experienced “downtime”, however, in this case, there were reports of a total outage by some users on their network – not only WhatsApp. Techzim also reported having been forewarned the day before by sources about social media being blocked.

At this point, there is little information available to outsiders of what exactly was and wasn’t working during that period. Without more information, it is not yet conclusive whether the outage was intentional.

3. There is a great fear that WhatsApp can be monitored and surveilled by the government. Is that possible?

For ordinary people looking to message and make calls privately on their phone, WhatsApp and Signal (another instant messaging and voice calling application) are great in ensuring only the two phones on either ends can see the messages or hear their calls.

Those apps have end-to-end encryption which is automatically in place, as it should be, without having people perform an intricate and clumsy setup. These are much better than regular SMS and phone calls.

People with more stringent security requirements, such as needing to hide who they are communicating with, would have to take many more precautions, though.

Edited by Anim van Wyk


© Copyright Africa Check 2020. Read our republishing guidelines. You may reproduce this piece or content from it for the purpose of reporting and/or discussing news and current events. This is subject to: Crediting Africa Check in the byline, keeping all hyperlinks to the sources used and adding this sentence at the end of your publication: “This report was written by Africa Check, a non-partisan fact-checking organisation. View the original piece on their website", with a link back to this page.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Africa Check encourages frank, open, inclusive discussion of the topics raised on the website. To ensure the discussion meets these aims we have established some simple House Rules for contributions. Any contributions that violate the rules may be removed by the moderator.

Contributions must:

  • Relate to the topic of the report or post
  • Be written mainly in English

Contributions may not:

  • Contain defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or harassing language or material;
  • Encourage or constitute conduct which is unlawful;
  • Contain material in respect of which another party holds the rights, where such rights have not be cleared by you;
  • Contain personal information about you or others that might put anyone at risk;
  • Contain unsuitable URLs;
  • Constitute junk mail or unauthorised advertising;
  • Be submitted repeatedly as comments on the same report or post;

By making any contribution you agree that, in addition to these House Rules, you shall be bound by Africa Check's Terms and Conditions of use which can be accessed on the website.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.