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Secret phone surveillance in Georgia – is it legal?

by | May 29, 2012

TBILISI, DFWatch – Georgia’s education minister on Monday fired the head the of National Examinations Center, which is know as a successfully reformed state body.

The minister said the reason was differences over how to implement reforms.

But there are suspecions that the real reason is that Maya Miminoshvili’s son attended an opposition rally on Sunday. She confirms that her son really was there together with his wife and he told her mother about it by phone. That’s why Miminoshvili suspects that her phone calls are being listened in to.

Firing a person because of a family member’s political views is one topic, secret phone surveillance another. A large part of the Georgian population, including politicians and media representatives, believe that they are under surveillance. It seems that government representatives believe so too.

Government structures have a right, granted by law, to listen to a person’s phone calls if there exists a court order to do so, but except from the interior ministry, none of the state bodies are able to specify how they do this in practice.

It should have been really simple: this is regulated by the law on operative-investigative activity, which says that an operative worker does this activity on the grounds of a court decision.

Such vague answers strengthened the belief that private information isn’t safe here in Georgia and people’s telephone calls are being illegally monitored. Georgian mobile companies are engaged in this together with law enforcement bodies.

This suspicion was strengthened in 2007, when after the violent dispersal of an opposition rally, the government released secret recordings of opposition leaders. It was done without a court order and the recordings were published to prove that they were Russian spies. But in the end, none of them were questioned, and they are still in politics today.

Recently, the Swedish TV company SVT accused mobile operator Teliasonera, which owns Georgian mobile operator Geocell, that government representatives in post-Soviet countries have created effective telephone surveillance systems through a partnership with them. The system is used against opposition activists and independent journalists in order to control people.

Geocell is an official partner of all government bodies, including law enforcement. They have corporate agreements. But Irma Tskitishvili, chair of Geocell’s press office didn’t answer us what the details of those agreements are. Neither did she put us in contact with someone who could answer these questions.

DF Watch wanted to have official information from mobile operator companies about whether they record conversations and store them; also do they store their consumers’ text messages; what kind of information is given away generally and on what basis.

To consider the fact that this information applies to people’s personal information, which is protected by the constitution, all companies are obliged to respect privacy and answer questions related to it.

There are three mobile operators in Georgia. Geocell didn’t give any answer to this question and Irma Tskitishvili told us that ‘Sweden media wasn’t dissatisfied of us but that they didn’t like our legislation.’

Then she also told us to send questions by e-mail and even though we sent our questions several times and reminded her about them a number of times, Geocell didn’t answer us.

There are two more mobile companies in Georgia: Magti and Beeline. Teona Baghdavadze from Beeline’s press office sent her answers in a letter.

“The content of conversations of our consumers is not recorded. It is available to receive information in case of special requests about incoming and outgoing calls.”

The press office of Magti gave the same answer, adding that they don’t have technical possibility to store text messages or to store recorded conversations. Accordingly they say they don’t give away any kind of information.

“The only information given away is about incoming and outgoing calls based on special request of the consumer,” Tatuli Ghviniashvili from Magti’s press office said.

This means that Magti only gives away information about when a certain call was made and how long it lasted, but not the content.

Georgia’s National Communication Commission supervises the activity of mobile operators. Therefore, we requested information about how they check mobile companies, and whether they are protecting the principle of constitutional privacy guarantees.

The question got chair of GNCC Press Office Khatia Kurashvili angry and she started yelling at us. She is also the sister of the head of the Judicial Service of the commission.

She said that we are asking stupid questions and that we don’t know what we want and that we will write some nonsense. Nevertheless, we tried to explain what we needed and she answered that no information is stored.

“Recently I accidently deleted an important message and when I asked they answered that it wasn’t possible to restore it. I tell you they don’t store any information and how can we check this?”

We wanted to know how GNCC knows that no information is stored. Public bodies, which should implement investigative-operative activity, cannot answer the question of how wiretapping is done technically and who is doing it.

The laaw about operative-investigative activity says that during wiretapping it is possible to make a recording based on a court order, which should be made on the grounds of a prosecutor’s motivated mediation; this is considered operative-investigative work. The right to carry out wiretapping is restricted to the Interior Ministry’s operative bodies and investigative departments, by law; the operative bodies of the finance ministry and its investigative departments; the prison ministry’s investigators and security services of detention and arrest; the operative investigative and surveillance sub-departments of the defense ministry; operative bodies of Georgia’s intelligence service; prosecutor’s investigators; investigators of appropriate body at the justice ministry and employees of operative management.

Those services belong to the Ministry of Justice (including the Prosecutor’s Office), the Interior Ministry, Defense Ministry, Prison Ministry and Finance Ministry.

We called them all, and it turned out that none of those bodies except Interior Ministry’s know or want to answer the question about how a court order is executed regarding phone surveillance. Deputy Justice Minister Dimitry Dzagnidze was also not able to answer. He said that this sphere doesn’t apply to him, but he couldn’t name a person who could answer us.

Shota Utiashvili, head of the analytical department at the Interior Ministry explained that by the law this procedure is implemented by above mentioned structures, by a certain person who works on a specific case. In addition, he appeals to a specific company to receive a permit about a customer’s number.

“An operative worker goes to the company, the consumer of which is a person, on which a court gave a sanction and the company is obliged to give a permit to monitor this consumer based on a court decision.”

We asked this to telephone companies how they implement wiretapping in case of a court decision and they told us that they just don’t have equipment to implement wiretapping.

This makes it clear that there are no answers to even the simplest questions, and the reactions of our respondents raise many new questions.

In addition, there is a problem when various bodies listen in to people’s phone calls without a court order, which should become another topic for discussion.

 



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