A photo illustration shows a man in front of a Yahoo logo seen through a magnifying glass in front of a displayed cyber code. Reuters file photo

While surfing online, an ad for the Sun Wallet-Secure Loan app pops up on the screen of many mobile phones. The app offers loans to the user. If the app is downloaded, permission must be given for access to all sorts of information of the user, even photographs and videos.

In a review of the app on Google Play, a woman wrote that she had repaid the loan in due time, but she is still being asked for additional payment. Her personal information and data is being used to blackmail her. She said that the app is a trap for innocent unsuspecting persons.

Using apps to provide loans without approval is prohibited in the country. But all sorts of crimes are being carried out in full swing in the digital world through apps with ads to start groups and distribute loans, illegal monetary transactions, gambling, buying and selling counterfeit currency, transactions in contraband cryptocurrency and so on. The government agencies pay little attention to controlling such crime. They are more focused on tackling any form of opposition of the government.

For example, around 90 per cent of the content which the government asks Google to remove, is related to criticism of the government and defamation. Google, though, does not acquiesce to most of the requests.

When a blame game is taken up, then it seems that the system isn’t functioning. At the end of the day, the people will want answers from the government. These matters are tarnishing the government’s image
M Ershadul Karim, senior lecturer, Law and emerging technologies, University of Malaya

Taking advantage of this slackness, all sorts of digital fraud is taking place. In the latest scam, the multilevel marketing (MLM) company Metaverse Foreign Exchange (MTFE) made off with billions of taka of the people in Bangladesh.

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After the MTFE scam was exposed, a meeting on what is to be done to check online financial scams and illegal monetary transactions, was held on Tuesday, chaired by the post and telecommunications minister Mustafa Jabbar. Speaking after the meeting at the secretariat, Mustafa Jabbar indicated that Bangladesh Bank was responsible for the failure to prevent illegal foreign currency businesses. “Bangladesh Bank is the highest authority when it comes to the question of foreign currency. And we who work in the digital world are concerned about this.”

The minister went on to say, “After cryptocurrency emerged, many asked us what we were doing about it. Try to understand, we can’t just focus all of our attention on one single app in the digital world.”

The minister, however, gave no answer to the question as to why they couldn’t prevent such business though they were so adroit at taking action if anyone made any sort of criticism on Facebook.

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The meeting recommended that a task force be formed, headed by Bangladesh Bank, to prevent the digital medium being used for illegal businesses and fraud, and also to draw up laws in this regard.

Lots of noise, little protection

There are a lot of laws and noise being made to protect people in the digital world. However, the question is whether that is to protect the people or to suppress anti-government elements. In 2006, the government enacted the Information and Communication Technology (ACT) Act. Section 57 of the act was widely criticised as it was used to repress freedom of expression. In face of such debate, in 2018 the government came up with a new law, the Digital Security Act. The content of the ICT Act’s Section 57 was simply inserted into different sections of the new law.

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When formulating the Digital Security Act too, the government spoke about protecting people in the digital world. But it was seen that this law was used to harass opposition party politicians and journalists. Most of the cases under this law were directed against them. Under a volley of criticism from home and abroad, the government admitted to the abuse of the Digital Security Act. Now a new Cyber Security Act is in the offing, again ostensibly to protect the people.

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The Digital Security Agency has been formed under the Digital Security Act. The agencies working to provide protection to people in the digital world and to prevent illegal transactions include the telecommunications regulatory body BTRC, Bangladesh Financial Intelligence Unit (BFIU), RAB, the police’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID), Special Branch (SB), Detective Branch (DB), the ICT Division and the ICT Division’s BGD e-GOV CIRT project. But the crimes and fraud continue under everyone’s eyes.

When it comes to using their capacity, the law enforcement agencies place more importance on protecting the interests of whoever is in power rather than welfare of the public
Abu Sayeed Khan, Senior fellow, LIRNEasia, digital policy research institute

The government has procured all sorts of equipment for surveillance in the digital world and the telecommunications sector. The question has also been raised as to how far all this equipment is being used to prevent people being cheated and to control such crime.

Section 8 of the Digital Security Act says that if it appears to the law and order enforcing force that any data or information published or propagated in digital media hampers the solidarity, financial activities, security, defence, religious values or public discipline of the country or any part thereof, or incites racial hostility and hatred, the law and order enforcing force may request BTRC to remove or block the data or information through the Director General.

When asked what sort of surveillance is carried out, a police official unwilling to reveal his identity said basically two types of tasks are carried out. One, cyber surveillance, which is basically political surveillance. The profiles of certain persons, certain pages, apps, who are speaking at TV talkshows, what they are saying, all this is regularly monitored. It is noted if they are involved in anti-government activities, if violence and disorder is involved. Then action is taken as directed. Two, cyber support. If any victim lodges a complaint, action is taken accordingly.

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Officials of CID, the Counter Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit (CTTC) unit and DB were asked what issues were given focus in the surveillance and what were the actions that are taken. They said, it helped them if complaints were made as in the case of MTFE.

Special superintendent of police of the CID’s Cyber Intelligence and Risk Management Unit, Md Rezaul Masud, told Prothom Alo that a month ago BFIU sent in 186 links to be probed. These included links related to online gambling, various apps, websites, Facebook and other social media links, etc. MTFE’s name wasn’t there. He said a CID team is working to see what has happened. If anyone filed a case, action will be taken accordingly.

Bangladesh Bank is also unwilling to accept liability. The central bank’s spokesman and executive director Mezbaul Haque told Prothom Alo, Bangladesh Bank deals with payment systems. The individual is responsible for where and why the payments are being made, not the payment system.

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The question is, who will protect the people? Speaking to Prothom Alo, senior fellow of the digital policy research institute LIRNEasia, Abu Sayeed Khan said, when it comes to using their capacity, the law enforcement agencies place more importance on protecting the interests of whoever is in power rather than welfare of the public. If this is the characteristic structure of a state, it is only natural for there to be such negligence.

What other agencies do

The ICT Division’s Bangladesh Computer Council has set up the BGD e-GOV CIRT project for cyber security, at a cost of around Tk 1.47 billion (Tk 147 crore). Based on approval from the ICT division, BGD e-GOV CIRT also functions as the National Computer Emergency Response Team (NCERT) for the Digital Security Agency.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, director general of the Digital Security Agency, Abu Sayeed Md Kamruzzaman, said BTRC is informed when complaints are made concerning online gambling, scams, etc. There is need for more precautions in this area.

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The department of telecommunications under the Directorate of Post and Telecommunications, from December 2016 to 2018, implemented the ‘Cyber Threat Detection and Response’ project, with an allocation of over Tk 1.55 billion. Under this project, equipment was purchased for monitoring the online world. The second phase of the project has been taken up at a cost of Tk 494.6 million (Tk 49 crore 46 lakh). When the director general of the telecommunications directorate, Md Rafiqul Islam, was asked about the work, he said he would not speak without permission of the ministry.

It was not possible to get any comment from BTRC about these matters. But the BTRC officials put forward their stand at the meeting held on Tuesday at the secretariat. Sources say that the officials had said that the fraudsters easily concealed their identity and if one app was closed, they simply opened another.

People will want answers

When government agencies fail in performing their duties, it is the people who suffer. For example, traders in Bogura’s New Market area faced massive losses by investing in two online MLM companies, GPTC and GPSA. Similar news pours in regular from districts all over the country. Earlier, the common people had been duped by various e-commerce companies like Jubok, Destiny, Uni2Pay and so on.

Speaking about this, senior lecturer of law and emerging technologies at Malaysia’s University of Malaya, Mohammad Ershadul Karim, told Prothom Alo that when a blame game is taken up, then it seems that the system isn’t functioning. At the end of the day, the people will want answers from the government. These matters are tarnishing the government’s image.

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* The report was originally published in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir