Phone operators pay for govt’s surveillance system upgrade

David Bergman

The country’s six mobile phone companies have paid for a multi-million dollar ‘upgrade’ to the government’s mobile phone surveillance system which allows intelligence and law enforcement authorities to directly record thousands of ongoing mobile phone conversations, New Age has learnt.
The upgrade, which will also allow greater access to mobile phone messages sent through e-mails and social networking sites, is being provided by the German company, Trovicor, one of the world’s leading suppliers of high end surveillance equipment and monitoring centres.
New Age has been told that the phone operators between them paid 20.1 million euros (Tk18.5 crore) for the upgrade – with the larger phone operators companies paying a larger share than the smaller ones.
Nurul Kabir, the secretary general and chief executive officer of the Association of Mobile Telecom Operators of Bangladesh told New Age that the mobile phone operators had to pay for the surveillance system as it was ‘part of their license conditions’.
At the cabinet meeting on February 2, the prime minister was played a number of audio recordings of phone conversations in which it was claimed that the Bangladesh Nationalist Party leader, Khaleda Zia, could be heard giving instructions to party leaders.
Copies of telephone conversations recorded in 2011, also involving the opposition leader, were uploaded last week on Youtube, though it is not clear whether these are the same calls played to the cabinet.
The current mobile phone surveillance system, which has been operational for over five years, was purchased from Nokia Siemens Network, also with money given at that time by the phone operators.
In 2009, the German company sold the part of the business that set up monitoring surveillance centres to the newly established company Trovicor that has now taken over Nokia Siemens’s previous contracts.
The system established in Bangladesh provides the government’s National Monitoring Centre the capacity to record as many as 20,000 mobile phone conversations at any one time.
‘The number of phone conversations that can be recorded simultaneously differs for each operator. [For our company] it is about 3000,’ one senior telecommunications expert, working for one of the operators, told New Age.
It is understood that the new upgrade from Trovicor could increase the recording capacity, though the change is mainly concerned with ensuring the equipment’s compatibility with 3G phone technology.
A home ministry letter concerning the upgrade, seen by New Age, states that the upgrade is necessary ‘because of the spread of the internet and the use of social networking sites.’
Until 2013, the National Telecommunications Monitoring Centre was based at the headquarters of Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, the intelligence wing of the country’s armed forces, but it is now run out of the Home Ministry. DGFI, however, continues to be involved in its operation.
Systematic surveillance of mobile phones was first introduced into Bangladesh after the enactment in 2005 of an amendment to the Telecommunications Act 2001 which allowed the home ministers, ‘in the interest of the security of the State or public order’ to authorise law enforcement and intelligence agencies to ‘record or collect information relating to any message or conversation of any telecommunications service user.’
The law says authorization should only be given ‘from time to time for a specified period.’
The 2005 provisions also stated that the ministers, may direct ‘any telecommunications service provider to extend cooperation in all respects for this purpose and the operator shall be bound to comply with such direction.’
In March 2006 an amendment to the operator’s license required the companies to ‘provide all necessary support’ to allow the implementation of the ‘newly inserted provisions of the said law forthwith’.
Recording of conversations can take place without any warrant from the court, and mobile phone operators are unaware of which phones are subject to surveillance.
‘The National Monitoring Centre does not have access to the operator’s servers. It operates through certain interfaces based on their customer’s requirements for collecting necessary information,’ the AMTOB chief executive officer told New Age.
‘The NMC does not need all the information from the mobile phone database, it just needs access to some of it.’
In 2013, Trovicor was listed by the non-government organisation, Reporters without Borders, as amongst the five ‘enemies of the internet’ for its provision of surveillance systems. The company was also alleged by international human rights groups to have ‘facilitated multiple human rights abuses in Bahrain, including arbitrary detention and torture, as well as violations of the right to privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of association.’
Mobile phone operators in some other countries are also required to pay for similar surveillance systems.
Last year, New Age revealed that the government had purchased software that could remotely intercept audio, video and written communications from privately owned computers and, in addition that RAB was seeking to buy a powerful mobile spy tool which can obtain details of all mobile phone numbers operating in a particular locality.

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