Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Bangladesh: Who is selling surveillance equipment to a notorious Bangladeshi security agency?


A brutal branch of the Bangladeshi Police with a record of abuse and brutality is looking to purchase mobile phone surveillance technology, according to documents obtained by Privacy International. Further information received suggests the technology was purchased from a Swiss-based surveillance manufacturer through an intermediary. The export of the equipment may have either already taken place or is due to take place imminently.

Provided to Privacy International were restricted documents detailing the tender for an 'IMSI Catcher' to be sold to the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an agency directly implicated in severe human rights abuses. If genuine, it is imperative that the export be stopped.

Given that the information comes in light of a recent admission by Swiss authorities to Privacy International that technology for monitoring mobile phones has already been given permission for export from Switzerland, we have written [on 30 April 2014] to the Swiss authorities asking them to investigate whether it is indeed a Swiss company that is supplying the technology.

We are seeking urgent clarification from relevant government authorities to ensure that any exports do not end up contributing to human rights violations in Bangladesh.

Indiscriminate violence

Bangladesh is facing a deteriorating human rights situation. A recent government crackdown has targeted members of civil society and the media during which social media and blogs have faced wide restrictions. Prominent critics of the government have been arrested while protesters have been met with violence, indiscriminate shootings and death at the hands of the security forces. Leading international human rights organisations have attributed severe human rights violations carried out in the country to the RAB. There have been reports of the RAB personnel engaging in brutal and unlawful beatings of protestors, in physical torture and the use of arbitrary detentions and excessive force.

Amnesty International estimate that over 700 extrajudicial executions have been carried out by the RAB personnel over seven years since its formation in 2004. The RAB have been explicitly singled out by both the United States and the United Kingdom for continued impunity in regard to human rights violations, while the US has recommended that an independent unit be set up to investigate the agency.

Indiscriminate surveillance technology

The surveillance technology allegedly sold to the RAB, IMSI Catchers, are powerful spy tools used to listen to mobile telecommunications. They are portable devices used to covertly intercept mobile communications by infiltrating GSM networks and capturing the International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) of the user. When activated they send a signal that tricks mobile phones in a defined area into thinking they are communicating with a legitimate mobile phone network. In this way, IMSI Catchers allow users to indiscriminately gather data from thousands of mobile phones in a specific area and at public events such as political demonstrations.

IMSI Catchers are known to be sold by several companies which are known to have offices in Switzerland, including but not limited, to Elaman GmbH, Gamma Group, and Neosoft AG.


Such a technology in the hands of an agency as reportedly unaccountable as the RAB is extremely concerning. While a public tender advertisement inviting bids for a "UHF Transmitter & Surveillance Equipment (Vehicular Version)" appeared on a Bangladeshi government website, a detailed procurement document available to prospective suppliers and provided to Privacy International shows that the surveillance equipment the RAB is looking to purchase is indeed a powerful vehicle mounted IMSI Catcher.

The call for tender, dated from December 2013, asks that bids be submitted by 12 February 2014, while the delivery of the goods is due some 30 days after the date of opening of Letter of Credit. It is further claimed that engineers from the winning bidder visited Bangladesh in March 2014. The document makes it clear the eventual winner should provide training for a total of 20 days.

Eligible suppliers are required to be based in "USA/ UK/ Canada/ EU/ Australia/ Switzerland 'or equivalent countries'". Israel is the only country explicitly excluded.

Export license required

Through the CAUSE (Coalition Against Unlawful Surveillance Exports), Privacy International along with other leading NGOs have been campaigning for the imposition of a strong licensing regime that will regulate the trade in such surveillance equipment. An effective system will ensure that all such technology is subject to licensing restrictions and that human rights criteria are appropriately considered before an export takes place. All IMSI Catchers should have been subject to an export license across Europe since 2011 after the inclusion of the technology under category 5.a.1.f of the Wassenaar Arrangement, but the process has hit bureaucratic roadblocks across EU member states. Some IMSI catchers are however still subject to licensing.

As a matter of urgency therefore, Privacy International is looking to establish whether an export license has already been granted for the sale of an IMSI Catcher to Bangladesh. If not, by raising the issue in advance licensing authorities are urged to subject any forthcoming application with an appropriately stringent human rights review.

It is also claimed the bid has been won by a tenderer operating what appears to be a front company distinct to the actual supplier. We are therefore asking licensing authorities to investigate whether any already approved exports of IMSI Catchers represent a diversionary risk through the subsequent re-export to Bangladesh.

Part of a wider problem

Given the severity of the claims, and the restricted time window, Privacy International is urgently seeking clarification from relevant authorities.

However, such piecemeal efforts urgently need to be replaced by a regulatory system that will make sure practices are improved and normalised. An effective system would also ensure that all surveillance technology is subject to licensing restrictions in a similar way to IMSI Catchers. More importantly, it will also commit the authorities charged with approving exports to strong human rights criteria that are appropriate specifically to surveillance technology, and make their decisions accountable to parliament, the courts, civil society and the public. A coordinated multilateral effort in this regard will also ensure that the RAB aren't able to look to a supplier based in another country, or to suppliers that are willing to use underhand techniques to ship their goods.

Such efforts are crucial to ensuring that RAB's capacity to engage in indiscriminate violence isn't augmented with indiscriminate surveillance technology.