A large group of Georgian civil society organizations have teamed up in a campaign to jointly push for putting in place mechanism that would rein in, what they call, government’s capabilities to carry out unrestricted surveillance.
The campaign, uniting dozens of non-governmental organizations, is called This Affects You. The same name was used by civil society groups when they were campaigning for improvement of electoral environment ahead of the 2012 parliamentary elections; back then it successfully lobbied for some changes, most notably legislative amendments allowing for broader media access for voters.
This time the campaign will focus on lobbying for legislative amendments, which, the group says, will help to introduce effective mechanisms for proper judicial oversight over government surveillance practice.
“Each of you can be among those 21,000 citizens whom the Interior Ministry has the capability to simultaneously eavesdrop,” Vakhushti Menabde of Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center (EMC) says in a video clip released by the campaign group.
Secret surveillance, privacy rights and personal data protection have been a source of concern in Georgia for years already, but the issue became subject of intense discussions with an active government engagement last year and the authorities have pledged to establish strong mechanisms both on legislative and executive level to prevent illegal surveillance. But despite this pledge concerns still remain as law enforcement agencies maintain so called 'black box' devices in the server infrastructure of major telecommunication companies, giving security agencies direct access for simultaneous monitoring of thousands of mobile phone numbers.
“For years the investigation bodies had been eavesdropping and carrying out surveillance on ordinary Georgian citizens, journalists, civil society representatives, political activists, defense lawyers, clerics and other persons without any oversight and permission,” the campaign group said in a statement.
“The ruling coalition, which came into power after the 2012 parliamentary elections, did not carry out any systemic change in this regard. Despite promises, law enforcement agencies still have unlimited access to the data of communication service operators,” it says.
The campaign group says that while the law enforcement agencies should have capability to carry out surveillance for the purpose of combating crime, the practice should be strictly regulated in order to prevent misuse of these capabilities against citizens who have nothing to do with specific suspected crime under investigation.
“The goal of the campaign is to change existing status quo in illegal eavesdropping and surveillance and to create systemic guarantees in order to rule out arbitrary actions by law enforcement agencies,” the campaign group said.
The group will push for adoption of a bill, which was initiated in the Parliament about a year ago, to increase oversight mechanism over government surveillance practice, including through boosting judiciary’s role.
Interior Minister, Alexander Tchikaidze, said on March 6: “I want to assure you that there is nothing illegal taking place.”
He also said that there’s no reason to be concerned over this issue. “When there was a real reason for that [referring to the period when UNM was in power], certain group of people, who are now actively speaking about it, were silent at the time,” Tchikaidze said.