Mass Surveillance in Former Soviet Republics

Tuesday 1 May 2012

Western firms that sold dictatorships in the Middle East mass-surveillance technology have been subject to intense scrutiny over the past year. But now a new exposé by journalists in Sweden has shed light on how the same tools are being used closer to home — in ex-Soviet republics across Europe and Central Asia, whose leaders were seemingly shaken by the revolutions of the Arab Spring.

Last week an investigative documentary shown on Swedish public service broadcaster SVT revealed in fascinating depth the extent to which Stockholm-based telecommunications firm Teliasonera is linked to spy agencies in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Georgia, facilitating crackdowns on dissident politicians and independent journalists.

Citing a multitude of sources — including official government documents and whistle-blower testimony — SVT’s reporters documented how companies owned by Teliasonera had allowed “black box” probes to be fitted within their telecommunications networks. The black boxes allow security services and police to monitor, in real-time and without any judicial oversight, all communications passing through, including texts, Internet traffic and phone calls. (Similar so-called “monitoring centers” were set up in Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya and Bashar al-Assad’s Syria with the help of European companies.)

SVT found some citizens who said they had been targeted for the strangest, most banal reasons. Several Azerbaijanis, for instance, said they had been summoned by police and subject to interrogation after phone records showed they had voted for a country other than their own during the televised Eurovision Song Contest in 2009. One man said he was told by officials working for Azerbaijan’s security agency that he was a “traitor” because he had voted for a song performed by musicians from Armenia, a neighbor with whom Azerbaijan has historically had tense relations.

Other cases were far more serious and sinister. Documents obtained by SVT showed an Azerbaijani reporter had his phone tapped after he published a piece about being beaten at the hands of government security agents while covering a story. He was subsequently stabbed in a savage attack and had to flee to France, where he has since taken up a case against the security agency and Teliasonera-owned Azercell in the European Court of Justice.

SVT also reported that the black-box surveillance was used in Belarus to track down, arrest, and prosecute protesters who attended an anti-government protest rally following the 2010 Belarusian presidential election.

Similar stories were reported in relation to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Georgia. In Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, sources said security agencies had even been given their own offices within the telecom providers’ headquarters to snoop on communications. One whistle-blower who worked for Teliasonera told the reporters, “The Arab Spring prompted the regimes to tighten their surveillance... There’s no limit to how much wiretapping is done, none at all.”

In response to the documentary, a spokeswoman for Teliasonera said that “police tap into information from telecom networks to fight crime” and “the rules for how far their authority goes are different from country to country.” When pressed about complicity in human rights violations, she looked shaky, refusing to comment on why security agencies were being given access to telecom buildings in Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan.

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