According to a recent investigation by the Swedish news show Uppdrag Granskning, Sweden’s telecommunications giant Teliasonera is the latest Western company revealed to be colluding with authoritarian regimes by selling them high-tech surveillance gear to spy on its citizens. Teliasonera has allegedly enabled the governments of Belarus, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Georgia and Kazakhstan to spy on journalists, union leaders, and members of the political opposition. One Teliasonera whistle-blower 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.”
The investigative report, titled “Black Boxes,” in reference to the black boxes Teliasonera allowed police and security services to install in their operation centers--which granted them the unrestricted capability to monitor all communications—including Internet traffic, phone calls, location data from cell phones, and text messages—in real-time. This has caused concern among Swedish citizens and Teliasonera shareholders, who had previously been assuaged by assurances from the telecommunications company that they follow the law in the countries in which they are operating. After a meeting with Peter Norman, Sweden’s Minister of Financial Markets, the chairman of Teliasonera’s board of directors issued a statement, announcing that they had launched “an action programme for handling issues related to protection of privacy and freedom of expression in non-democratic countries, in a better and more transparent way.”
Teliasonera’s declaration of good intentions may be too little too late after the damning evidence of abuse compiled by Uppdrag Granskning. Documents obtained by their investigators showed an Azerbaijani had his phone tapped after he published a piece about being beaten at the hands of government security agents while covering a story. The report also found that 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. One Azerbaijani citizen says he was interrogated solely due to the fact that he voted for the Armenian representative in the 2009 Eurovision song contest.
In the post-Soviet state of Georgia, these recent revelations have prompted the Georgian Young Lawyers Association (GYLA) to challenge indiscriminate wiretapping in their country, alleging that far from complying with local statutes, Teliasonera was breaking Georgian law.
GYLA points out that the Georgian criminal code and constitution protect personal information such as private phone calls. Police must obtain a court order before they can listen in to a citizen’s private phone conversations. GYLA attorney Maya Khutsishvili says that companies can only provide private information about a person to investigative bodies based on such a court order—and that a court’s ruling must indicate why the investigative body needs to listen to a specific person or receive other kinds of personal information.
EFF believes that for Western countries providing telecommunications equipment or services, merely complying with the law is insufficient. Authoritarian regimes can interpret the law in ways that justify unlimited spying on journalists and political dissidents. Or, as is the case in Georgia, the laws on the books are not enforced—unrestricted surveillance is the order of the day. If tech companies want to avoid being repression’s little helper, they must know their customer and refrain from cooperating with governments that they believe will use their technology to facilitate human rights violations.