Further proof of the technological transformation taking place in Africa thanks to mobile telephony came in a report by the telecoms multinational Ericsson, which predicts data traffic (ie internet use) on phones will increase by 1,900% between 2013 and 2019—twice the global rate. Across a continent in which 75% of the population lives in rural areas and which suffers from a huge competitive disadvantage in terms of fixed-line technology and other infrastructure, this boom could enable Africans to leapfrog other parts of the world in connectivity and unlock huge creative and entrepreneurial flair. ‘It’s hard to overstate how much mobile phones have changed the shape and form of life in Africa,’ said Erik Hersman, founder of the crowdsourcing activist site Ushahidi and Nairobi’s iHub, in theStanford Social Innovation Review.

Half of this phenomenal growth will be on smartphones, said Eriksson, as the falling price of more sophisticated handsets pushes their adoption by the burgeoning middle classes. Mobiles with hitherto unimaginable computing power can be had for less than $100 now and the price is expected to halve over the next few years. ‘Mobile broadband is now the primary way that many sub-Saharan consumers access the internet,’ Ericsson said, with 70% of mobile users browsing the web on their handsets, compared with 6% who used desktop computers.

Ericsson said the largest proportion of new mobile subscriptions—26m of 120m globally—in the first quarter of 2014 were in Africa. ‘Mobile phones may be the only way that many people will be able to access financial services,’ said Ericsson, which found huge interest in using mobile banking and mobile wallets when they become more readily accessible. ‘This innovation is boosting financial inclusion at all levels of society.’

Phones can give access to medical expertise for people far from a clinic. MedAfrica is a mobile app that provides basic information about health and medicine and can be used on any mobile phone, not just smartphones (most African phone users will remain on 2G networks for a long time). This, the company points out, reduces doctors’ workload, allows people to access information independently, and speeds up access to treatment for patients who might otherwise face gruelling journeys and queues to be seen. In Kenya, Nigeria and even Mozambique, film, TV and other media are increasingly being accessed through smartphones, the report said, while in Nigeria’s agricultural sector an electronic wallet system allows farmers to receive electronic vouchers for subsidised seeds and fertilisers directly on to their mobile phones. It also enables them to pay for farming equipment from agricultural dealers. ‘Affordable access to mobile broadband is not a luxury, but a necessity in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa,’ Ericsson said.

As the Arab Spring demonstrated, social media creates the potential for dissidents and activists to organise against the state apparatus with a reach and speed unimaginable only a decade ago. Conversely, however, governments can pull the plug on this technology with an ease that frightens civil liberties groups. Reuters reported in June that calls for a general strike in the Central African Republic led by an organisation called Collectif Centrafrique Debout, following further inter-communal bloodshed in the capital Bangui, were blocked for days by a ban on SMS text messages.

The rapidly developing technology, and the transformation in society that this fuels, can both allow greater repression in one country while elsewhere governments are forced to ease restrictions as they struggle to keep a lid on debate. The 2014 edition of the Freedom House report Freedom in the World noted a declining human rights environment in The Gambia after the dictatorship of  Yahya Jammeh banned the use of Skype and other voice-communication programs in internet cafés, yet it also pointed to gains in Rwanda from ‘increasing critical commentary on social media, as illustrated by the unhindered online debates regarding Paul Kagame’s presidential tenure’.

This tension between information technology’s potential to positively change people’s lives and the ever-present threat of increased repression through blanket surveillance by governments is, of course, far from limited to the developing world. The revelations of the former US National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden and other intelligence agency whistleblowers, such as William Binney, have exposed the staggering extent of data collection in the US and the collaboration of  33 other countries—with the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand leading the pack. Binney has revealed that ‘at least 80% of all audio calls, not just metadata, are recorded and stored in the US’, the Guardian reported.

The Washington Post recently found that the bulk of data and voice communications intercepted by the NSA are those of Americans, not legally targeted foreigners. ‘Many other files, described as useless by the analysts but nonetheless retained, have a startlingly intimate, even voyeuristic quality. They tell stories of love and heartbreak, illicit sexual liaisons, mental-health crises, political and religious conversions, financial anxieties and disappointed hopes. The daily lives of more than 10,000 account holders who were not targeted are catalogued and recorded nevertheless,’ the Post said.

Governments, however, argue that intercepts have helped foil numerous terrorist plots, such as the 2006 liquid bomb plot, as well as helping breaking up drug cartels and sexual ‘grooming’ rings. The UK made some 5,000 requests for telecom metadata last year and more than 2,700 for intercepts. The reliance of western governments on such hi-tech surveillance is considered so critical that the British government was seeking to rush emergency legislation through parliament in July to block the possibility that a landmark European Union Court of Justice ruling that restricts state access to citizens’ data might hamper the police and intelligence agencies.

In return for the support of the ruling Conservative party’s Liberal Democrat coalition partners, and the Labour opposition, the Guardian reported that the prime minister, David Cameron, had been forced to agree to a ‘sunset clause’ time-limit (ensuring the bill expires in 2016), a full review of intercept laws, a new oversight board and curbs on the number of public bodies that can use surveillance data. Despite these safeguards, Sir David Omand, former director of the British spy agency GCHQ, insisted on the BBC’s Newsnight that there was no need for further legislation. It says much about the very real threat of Big Brother that even a former spook can oppose giving the spy agencies more power.