Mobile phone tapping and tracking
Govt to launch advanced surveillance system before elections
The government is all set to introduce a new mobile phone surveillance system ahead of upcoming elections, enabling the police and intelligence agencies to access the precise location as well as other confidential information of a mobile phone user.
The system would cost nearly Tk 2 billion to be installed by the mobile operators.
A surveillance system is still in place, but it does not provide the precise location of a mobile phone user. Under the current system, it is possible to identify the area where a mobile user is located, but the precise location remains untracked.
The new system, however, will provide precise location of the mobile phone, allowing authorities to determine even the specific building a person is in, as well as to track the movement of a large group through artificial intelligence (AI) at a time.
The new system will preserve "geo-location" data of mobile phone users for six months, helping the authorities to get a precise picture of the users movement during the period.
On the condition of anonymity, a telecommunication technology expert said it is tough to track a large number of people at a time in the existing system as the officials have to gather information individually through a manual system.
Mobile operators in Bangladesh have been given licences to provide telecommunication services, not to assist the intelligence agencies by providing them people’s geolocation data
In contrast, the new system will use AI and make it easier to analyse the geo-location data of thousands of people simultaneously.
According to official documents, the new surveillance system – Integrated Lawful Interception System (ILIS) – will link all internet service providers (ISPs), international internet gateways (IIGs), national internet exchange (NIX) service providers, and mobile operators to the system of a government agency.
The integrated system will provide geo location data of all mobile phone users to the law enforcers as well as intelligence agencies.
According to documents and sources, the authorities took an initiative to introduce the ILIS in 2018, when a letter was issued to the concerned private orgnaisations and its copies to the associated ministries and other government offices.
However, it could not be introduced due to the unpreparedness of the government and a delaying approach from the operators. However, the authorities recently summoned the private organisations and instructed them to launch the advanced surveillance system by November.
The move appears significant as the country is all set to hold a parliamentary election in January next year and the oppositions are in efforts to gear up their movement against the government.
Operators to bear the cost
Home minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal, in response to a question on 12 January, told the parliament that the government had taken an initiative to launch a mechanism for ‘lawful interception’ with the aim to contain anti-state and anti-government activities. ILIS is a part of the system.
Earlier, on 1 June in 2022, the Cabinet Committee on Government Procurement granted approval for the proposal involving "Part procurement of integrated lawful interception (LI) system-geolocation system and related services." At that time, it was announced that the system would be procured directly from France's Intersec, with an estimated cost exceeding Tk 1.72 billion.
The government said the system will be introduced to curb crimes. A letter, issued in March 2018, said this system will be used in monitoring to collect required data to identify crimes and criminals for the sake of the safety of the people. All the law enforcement agencies and intelligence agencies will get geolocation and other tracking facilities as per their demand.
The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) and the Association of Mobile Telecom Operators of Bangladesh (AMTOB) stated that they require new software and equipment to implement the specified geolocation system. This implementation entails a significant financial investment. AMTOB has requested the necessary funds from BTRC's Social Obligation Fund (SOF). The estimated cost of the proposed project is US $19 million (Tk 2.10 billion).
BRTC sources said the 20th meeting of the SOF’s management committee was held at the Post and Telecommunication Division’s auditorium on 8 August with minister Mostofa Jabbar in the chair. AMTOB’s proposal was rejected from the meeting saying there was no scope to consider the application as per the telecommunication act. That means the operators will have to bear the cost of installing the new surveillance system. Currently four mobile operators - Grameenphone, Robi-Axiata, Banglalink and TeleTalk - have been operating in the country.
Section 97 (A) of the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Act says the government could endow authority to any official of the government agencies to prevent, record and collect information of any message or voice call of any user of telecommunication services “for the sake of the state’s security or public order”. The telecommunication service provider is bound to obey any order in this regard.
Some of the lawyers and rights activists, however, pointed out that though this law mentions providing information about messages and voice calls, it does not say anything about providing location of the person. This is a violation of the people’s right to privacy. And, public order is a wide issue. Using such laws, the government generally brings everyone under surveillance.
Speaking to Prothom Alo, Mohammad Ershadul Karim, senior lecturer of Law and Emerging Technologies department at Universiti Malaya, said the scope of surveillance on any individual is kept open in civilised democratic countries as per the order of any court, not in general. In Bangladesh, the surveillance is done on a mass scale in the name of “the state’s security or public order”. There are sufficient reasons to believe that this is used to control the oppositions.
‘No such guarantee’
The service providers said in the developed countries the specific information of any person’s location is used only in cases of emergency. Even then the name and identity of the person cannot be provided to the service providers.
For example, if any person, who is alone at home and has fallen sick, phones at the national emergency number for emergency medical care, the medical service providers use his geo-location to track the person. But in Bangladesh, a caller has to provide every detail after making a phone call to 999.
People concerned said the new system of collecting geo-location information is being opened in Bangladesh for surveillance, not mainly for the purpose of providing emergency services.
Not only the integrated lawful interception system, the government has earlier procured spy tech for mobile phones. The Bangladesh government has bought advanced surveillance equipment, developed by a company controlled by the former commander of Israeli intelligence’s technology unit, in 2022. Israel’s left-leaning newspaper, Haaretz, carried a report in this regard quoting official government documents and international export records on 10 January.
The interception system, which includes a van equipped with surveillance equipment and tracking software that gathers data from mobile phones via cellular and Wi-Fi networks, including encrypted WhatsApp messages, Facebook chats, contact lists, calls and text messages within a radius of about half a kilometre.
France’s Intelligence Online in a report on 17 March in 2022 said that Bangladesh has bought spy tech to intercept Telegram, an internet-based messaging service. Before this, Switzerland intercepted a consignment of the spy tech for mobile phones in 2015 on allegation of violation of human rights.
Speaking to Prothom Alo, Abu Saeed Khan, a senior policy fellow at LIRNEasia, a digital policy organisation research for the Asia Pacific, said interception is not legally forbidden in Bangladesh. But the magnitude and ways of implementation of the law carries the cultural identity of a state. Using modern technology against political opponents never identifies a state as civilised.
"States remain constant, but governments change. There is no guarantee that the technology won't be used against those in power today when they become the opposition," he warned.
Abu Saeed Khan further stated that as per the new system the money required for procuring the surveillance software and equipment will be collected from the consumers. No mobile operator or government agencies can do this by any means. Mobile operators in Bangladesh have been given licences to provide telecommunication services, not to assist the intelligence agencies by providing them people’s geolocation data.
* The report was originally published in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Shameem Reza and Misbahul Haque