Belarus uses telecoms firms to stifle dissent

Belarus authorities are using phone networks run by some of the world’s biggest telecoms companies to stifle free speech and dissent, said Amnesty International in a report published today.

The report, “It’s enough for people to feel it exists: Civil society, secrecy and surveillance in Belarus”, documents how potentially limitless, round-the-clock, unchecked surveillance has a debilitating effect on NGO activists, making basic work, like arranging a meeting over the phone, a risk.

“In a country where holding a protest or criticizing the president can get you arrested, even the threat that the authorities are spying on you can make the work of activists next to impossible."

Joshua Franco, Technology and Human Rights Researcher at Amnesty International

“In a country where holding a protest or criticizing the president can get you arrested, even the threat that the authorities are spying on you can make the work of activists next to impossible,” said Joshua Franco, Technology and Human Rights Researcher at Amnesty International.

Telecoms companies, including ones owned by Telekom Austria Group and Turkcell, allow this to happen by granting the government nearly unlimited access to their customers’ communications and data. Operating in Belarus requires giving authorities remote-control access to all their users’ phone and internet communications.

“Companies that operate in Belarus have to let authorities have the data they want, when they want it. So if the KGB, for example, wants to spy on them, they don’t need to show a warrant, they don’t need to ask the company to give them access,” said Joshua Franco.

“Telecoms companies have great responsibility. Technology usually empowers free speech, but the spread of communications technology in Belarus has increased the risk of repression. It is vital that telecoms companies resist the abuse of communications technology for outrageously intrusive violations of privacy and free expression.

“The future of online freedom depends on whether telecoms companies challenge governments who overstep the bounds of privacy and free speech, or meekly comply with them to protect their profit margins.”

Stringent state surveillance has a chilling effect on activism

In Belarus, the KGB and other security services have free, non-stop, remote access to both real-time communication and stored data in phone and internet networks.

The report is based on interviews with more than 50 human rights activists, journalists, lawyers, political opposition members, technology experts and others, either in Belarus or in exile, between August 2015 and May 2016. It shows how fear of surveillance impacts privacy, free expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association.

Activists told Amnesty International how the total secrecy around surveillance forces them to assume they are subject to surveillance at all times. One independent journalist, whose identity has been concealed, said:

“Most people are afraid to speak openly on the phone. It’s like part of your mindset. You assume from the beginning that you live in fear, that everything is bad, that you cannot control or influence it. In principle if I am talking indoors, or on the phone, or writing emails, I assume it all gets to the KGB.”

"In principle if I am talking indoors, or on the phone, or writing emails, I assume it all gets to the KGB."

Belarussian activist

Simple tasks such as seeking funding for their organization, making phone calls, or arranging meetings, become fraught with risk, with activists saying they fear their personal or financial information could be used to prosecute, discredit or blackmail them.

Activists also described to Amnesty International how police appeared to be informed of the times and locations of meetings, protests and other public activities before they happen, even when these events had only been discussed on private phone calls.

“For human rights activists in Belarus, encryption is a last line of defence against a repressive state and its powerful surveillance apparatus. Governments everywhere who want to weaken encryption and empower wider surveillance should beware the potential consequences for human rights,” Joshua Franco.

Belarusian authorities have unfettered access to communications

Belarusian law obliges companies to make their networks compatible with a technical system, SORM (an acronym that translates to “Hardware System for Search Operations”) that gives authorities access to communications without even asking or telling the operator. Companies must also maintain data about customers’ devices and internet services, for five, or possibly as long as 10, years so that authorities can continue to access it remotely.

There is little oversight and no public record of how often this system is used or to what purpose. The legal justifications for surveillance are extremely broad. For example, threats to national security may justify surveillance, but Belarusian law identifies 30 different types of threats to national security, including “decline in well-being and quality of life”, “rise in unemployment”, “inadequate and poor quality of foreign investment” and “attempts to destroy national spiritual and moral traditions and biased revisions of history.” Authorities can initiate surveillance without the approval of a court or a judge.

Amnesty International is calling on the Belarusian government to create checks and balances for surveillance practices to bring them in line with international human rights standards.

Amnesty International is also calling on telecoms companies who own or part-own operators in Belarus to challenge laws that prevent them from protecting their customers’ privacy, and inform their customers in the country that their data will be available to the authorities at any time.

International telecoms firms implicated

The three largest mobile phone providers in Belarus are partly owned by foreign companies:

  • Velcom is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Telekom Austria Group. Telekom Austria told Amnesty International it was obliged to follow Belarusian law. It publishes no information about how access to its Velcom customer data is managed. Telekom Austria is majority owned by América Móvil. América Móvil did not respond to Amnesty International letters.
  • Life:) is 80% owned by the Turkish company Turkcell, which is in turn 38% owned by the Swedish company Teliasonera. Teliasonera told Amnesty International that it has a firm policy opposing direct access to telecoms data, but says it cannot take responsibility for Turkcell’s actions because it is not a majority owner. Turkcell did not respond to Amnesty International letters.
  • MTS is jointly owned by the Russian company MTS and Beltelecom, the state-owned Belarusian telecom. MTS (Belarus) did not respond to Amnesty International letters.

Amnesty International believes that the companies are violating well-established standards on business and human rights. Under the UN’s Guiding Principles for Responsible Business, national laws where a company operates cannot be used to justify human rights abuses.

“Intrusive surveillance is not a new phenomenon in Belarus, but what has changed is that technology is taking it to a whole new level. The authorities now have a vast surveillance apparatus at their disposal that allows unrestrained access to private life. The KGB can use phone location records to see where people are and who is with them. People’s mobile phones are now like police officers in their pockets,” said Joshua Franco.