bne IntelliNews -
The Georgian parliament has passed a controversial government-backed bill on surveillance which allows the Ministry of Interior to retain direct access to telecom operators’ networks. The vote on November 30 overrode the veto the day before from President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who said the bill lacked the “right balance” between privacy rights and security tapping.
Supporters of the bill, including the chairwoman of parliament’s human rights committee, Eka Beselia, who is one of the law’s initiators, cite mainly “security challenges” behind the need to allow the Interior Ministry to retain its direct access. In her closing remarks Beselia stated that the Interior Ministry requires sufficient tools to tackle security challenges the country is facing.
The parliament rejected an alternative bill proposed by Margvelashvili that excluded the wiretapping by the law enforcement agencies without court authoriaation. After the parliament overturned his veto, Margvelashvili eventually signed the law.
Civil society groups have long been campaigning against the bill as they fear granting the Ministry of Interior too much authority to peek into citizens’ lives, a practice widespread under former president Mikheil Saakashvili’s tenure.
In March a platform of over 20 human rights and watchdog groups joined forces in the 'This Concerns You – They are still Listerning' coalition and lobbied to introduce a mechanism for judicial oversight over the government’s ability to carry out unrestricted surveillance.
“Challenging the law in the Constitution Court is at this stage is the last resort,” points out Giorgi Gotsiridze, lawyer in constitutional litigation at the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, (GYLA) which is part of the coalition.
Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, a strong supporter of the bill, has clashed more than once with watchdog groups whose opposition to the surveillance regulation he slammed would “damage” Georgia’s international reputation and “undermine” the country’s security. On November 28, Garibashvili, who held the position of Minister of Interior until November 2013, reportedly said “my slogan is that the strong Interior Ministry, the strong state, the strong Georgian special services [are] the prerequisite of our country’s success, progress, development and strength”.
The surveillance debates revolves around who should have direct access, the “key”, to telecommunication service providers’ networks. The approved bill introduces a ‘two-key system’, one in the hands of the Interior Ministry, the other at the Personal Data Protection Inspector’s Office, whose authority has been increased as a result of recent legislative amendments.
“The ministry, which incorporates intelligence and security agencies, has the technical capability to listen in on conversations, but the system is not traceable for the legal data inspector,” explains Gotsiridze. “The two-key system is ineffective for the needed check and balances and it poses a serious challenge to personal freedom and privacy rights.”
A video released by the coalition in March appeals to citizens’ privacy rights.
“Each of you can be among those 21,000 citizens on whom the Interior Ministry has the capability to simultaneously eavesdrop,” says Vakhushti Menabde, lawyer at the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center (EMC).
According to Caterina Bolognese, who represents the Council of Europe in Georgia, in March and September the Strasbourg-based human right organisation provided assistance to the parliament, bringing data protection experts to Georgia “to discuss how to regulate surveillance issues in line with human rights law".
Concerns about secret surveillance, privacy rights and personal data protection are not new in Georgia. In 2010 the previous government approved a legislative clause granting law enforcement agencies “permanent access” to telecommunications companies’ servers. The clause allowed the installation of the so-called “black box” spy devices to monitor citizens' communications without any efficient oversight. Last year the new government pledged to establish legislative and executive mechanisms to prevent illegal surveillance, a pledge civil society groups claim has now proved empty.
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