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TeliaSonera sells black boxes to dictators

21 May 2012

While the UK awaits details on how the proposed Communications Bill will force service providers to monitor internet and phone metadata, Sweden’s TeliaSonera shows how it could be done by selling black boxes to authoritarian states.

Uppdrag Granskning is the investigative branch of Sveriges Television (SVT), the Swedish public service television company. It has a history of investigating and publicizing uncomfortable facts – such as its disclosure that IKEA knowingly used political prisoners in the old East Germany to help in the manufacture of its furniture. Last month a new investigation showed that one-quarter “of TeliaSonera's recent record profits of [SEK]36 billion [came] from subsidiaries in Central Asia and from hard-line dictatorships” such as Azerbaijan, Belarus and Uzbekistan. 

These are the same countries where TeliaSonera, in which the Swedish government is the major shareholder, provides black boxes to law enforcement and intelligence agencies to provide realtime access to mobile telephone calls. “The system,” wrote Sweden’s The Local, “allows security services direct access to subscribers' telephone calls, data, and text messages, resulting in wiretaps which have led to the arrest of members of the political opposition.”

While the UK government insists that its Communications Bill will exclude all content, the TeliaSonera black boxes show that it is a small technology step from monitoring traffic metadata to eavesdropping on actual conversations. Abuse becomes simple. In Azerbaijan it becomes extreme. “In one instance, a man in Azerbaijan was called in to an interrogation by the country's security service after having voted for Armenia in the finals of the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest.”

According to EFF, “The [Uppdrag Granskning] report also found that black-box surveillance was used in Belarus to track down, arrest, and prosecute protesters who attended an anti-government protest rally following the 2010 Belarusian presidential election.” If tech companies want to avoid being repression’s little helper, says EFF, “they must know their customer and refrain from cooperating with governments that they believe will use their technology to facilitate human rights violations.”

This article is featured in:
Internet and Network Security  •  Wireless and Mobile Security

 

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