Human rights and watchdog groups have called on the Interior Ministry to remove ‘black box’ devices from telecommunication companies, which give security agencies direct access to communication networks allowing them to monitor text messages, phone calls and internet traffic simultaneously from thousands of mobile phone numbers without any oversight.
On May 24 a conference was held in Tbilisi on secret surveillance, privacy rights and personal data protection – issues which have been a source of concern in Georgia for past several years but which became subject of intense discussions with an active government engagement in recent months. Concerns over privacy rights further exacerbated after leak of sex video of a fierce critic of some senior officials earlier in May; first deputy interior minister was charged in connection to this leak of the video, allegedly from cache of recordings gathered through illegal surveillance by the previous leadership of the interior ministry.
The current government has vowed to establish strong mechanisms both on legislative and executive level to prevent illegal surveillance. A joint hearing of several relevant parliamentary committees was held on May 20 to discuss planned legislative amendments.
But as it was noted during the May 24 conference in Tbilisi, organized by Transparency International Georgia, Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association and Innovations and Reforms Center, concerns still remain about practices.
Citing telecom company insiders, Transparency International Georgia says that the Interior Ministry maintains ‘black boxes’ in the server infrastructure of all major telecommunication companies, giving security services technical capacity to monitor 21,000 mobile phone numbers at the same time.
“We do not know and it is very difficult to exactly find out to what extent, if at all, the [Interior] Ministry uses these technical capabilities for unchecked wiretapping,” says Eka Gigauri, executive director of TI Georgia.
Pasi Koistinen, CEO of mobile operator Geocell, part of the Swedish-Finnish telecom operator TeliaSonera, told the conference in Tbilisi on May 24: “If there is a will from the government side, we could start really putting good practices in place already from tomorrow.”
An interior ministry official present at the conference did not address specifically the issue of ‘black boxes’ and said in general terms that the ministry was ready for close cooperation with the civil society.
The legislation requires a court authorization for wiretapping in the process of “operative investigation measures” carried out by the law enforcement agencies.
“However, judges are typically not informed in depth about the subject matter of the investigation and are not told the results of the surveillance. In the past, judges have rubber-stamped prosecutors’ applications for surveillance and communication interception. It is not clear to what extent this is still the practice,” according to the Transparency International Georgia.
Judicial authorities say that standard of scrutinizing requests from the law enforcement agencies for secret surveillance and wiretapping has increased in recent months, which to some extent has also been reflected in increased numbers of denials on motions asking for court authorization on secret surveillance.
Data only from capital Tbilisi, not including other parts of the country, show that in the first four months of 2013 law enforcement agencies filed total of 1.195 motions to judges requesting approval for carrying out wiretapping; 1,069, or 89%, out of these motions were approved.
Share of approvals stood at 99.88% and 99.79% in 2011 and 2012, respectively. There were total of 7,195 such motions filed with the court in Tbilisi in 2011 and 5,951 in 2012.
Thomas Hammarberg, who was appointed by the European Commission as the EU’s Special Adviser for Legal and Constitutional Reform and Human Rights in Georgia in February, said on May 20 that the law should define clearly time limits of surveillance and any information that might be obtained through such legally authorized surveillance, but might not be related to actual case, should immediately be destroyed. He also says that the law should provide provisions obligating the authorities to inform a person, subjected to surveillance, after the time period is over that such surveillance was carried out.
“There is a need to regulate this to make any such surveillance activities unique, extraordinary and only within the frames of the law so that people can feel the trust that they are not listened to and that the mobiles are not tapped,” said Hammarberg, who welcomed that such “very difficult issues are discussed in the democratic spirit.”
Last six annual human rights reports on Georgia from the U.S. Department of State, from the one covering 2007 to the most recent report covering 2012, repeatedly mentions about individuals telling western mentors that they were reluctant to discuss, or had stopped discussing, sensitive topics by telephone due to concern about government wiretapping.
In late October, 2012 the Constitutional Court ruled that operative investigations of private Internet communications would require a court order. The U.S. Department of State’s 2012 human rights report, however, said that despite of this ruling the Interior Ministry “appeared to have continuing direct access to the technological infrastructure of telecommunication companies, raising concerns regarding continued illegal government surveillance.”