TBILISI, DFWatch – Swedish TV recently revealed that Teliasonera has opened their doors for an Orwellian level of surveillance in former Soviet countries. A group of lawyers in Georgia now says that indiscriminate wiretapping is illegal.
Georgian Young Lawyer’s Association says that if the police wants to listen in to a citizen’s private phone conversations, they must first obtain a court order, on a case by case basis.
This means that the mass, over-the-board surveillance which Swedish public broadcaster SVT1 documented in a recent report is illegal – at least in Georgia. Personal information, such as a private phone call, is protected by the Criminal Code and the constitution.
Lawyer Maya Khutsishvili from GYLA says that companies can only provide private information about a person to investigative bodies based on a decision of a court. She says the court ruling must indicate why the investigative body needs to listen to a specific person or receive other kinds of personal information.
The Swedish TV channel accuses Teliasonera of cooperating with many post-soviet regimes in creating an effective phone surveillance system which is being used to crack down on opposition activists, independent journalists and others.
In Georgia, police listened in to phones of photographers who documented police brutality during a demonstration in Tbilisi May 26 2011, recordings which were aired on national TV, seemingly in order to convict them in the court of public opinion. Four photographers were accused of being Russian spies, but the case never came to a trial; the four signed a plea bargain agreement.
The case of the photo-reporters is only one among many surveyed in a documentary on Swedish SVT1. The reporters say that Teliasonera is engaged in a barter where the company achieves a profit from Post-Soviet regimes in exchange for opening their systems for the security services to listen in on their customers. In Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, Teliasonera’s subsidiaries even provide the security police with their own offices in which to carry on with the surveillance.
“Mobile companies have an agreement with each client. This agreement should define that these data are confidential. The company can give away information which is not a personal secret, on the grounds of a request. But if there is a court decision, in this case they can provide this information. A court decision cannot be made without an explanation. This should be about crime, it should be proved that this is needed in order to support the investigation and finding the truth,” says Maya Khutsishvili.
How many court decisions were presented last year to request personal information in Geocell is yet unknown, but the company says that government bodies have this information, reports the small, independent TV station Kaviazia.
The surveillance does not only consist of listening to phone calls, but also involves capturing transcripts of SMS and other digital information.
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.
A representative of Teliasonera says that the activity of the company is regulated in every country and it complies with the laws of the countries in which it works.
If necessary, the police has a right to request information from communications operators, but this is regulated in different ways in different countries. Teliasonera serves more than 135 million people around the world. In 2002 it started purchasing shares in Geocell in Georgia. According to Geocell’s official webpage, it has more than 2 million customers.