Bangladesh: Move on to tap phone calls, bust e-mails



The Daily Star [Dhaka, Bangladesh]
September 04, 2003 	 

Move on to tap phone calls, bust e-mails

Mustak Hossain

A move is underway to amend the Bangladesh Telecommunication Act 
2001, allowing intelligence agencies to breach privacy of individuals 
by tapping telephone calls and busting e-mails, sources said.

A leading intelligence agency backed by others has initiated the move 
and convinced the relevant ministries to amend the act, paving the 
way for gross breach of privacy, sources said.

The agencies also want access to the subscribers' database of all 
fixed phone and cellular phone service providers and the Internet 
service providers (ISPs).

The telecoms act stipulates that breaching individual privacy by 
eavesdropping on telephone conversations between two persons is a 
punishable offence as it infringes on civil rights.

Although security agencies cannot legally eavesdrop on telephone 
conversations, allegations have long been there that they monitor and 
tap telephone calls illegally. But at present, they cannot use the 
information derived by such means as evidence in a court of law.

However, after its amendment, the intelligence agencies will be able 
to manoeuvre freely to listen to individual telephone calls, read 
e-mails and produce tapped and e-mailed messages before the court as 
evidence.

Section 71 of the telecoms act describes penalty for eavesdropping on 
telephone conversations: "A person commits an offence, if he 
intentionally listens to a telephone conversation between two other 
persons, and for such offence, he shall be liable to be sentenced to 
imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to a fine not 
exceeding 50 thousand taka or both."

Sources said security agencies have been able to persuade the Prime 
Minister's Office to bring changes to the telecoms act, citing the 
rise of terrorist activities in Bangladesh and September 11 terror 
attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, US.

The agencies also convinced the Ministry of Post and 
Telecommu-nications (MoPT) to bring some changes to the telecoms law. 
The ministry recently held a series of meetings with the Ministry of 
Law and Bangladesh Telecommuni-cations Regulatory Commission (BTRC).

The BTRC has already prepared a draft outlining changes asked for by 
the security agencies on instruction of the law ministry.

The agencies want a change in the subsection of Section 30 of the 
telecoms act, which deals with protection of privacy of 
telecommunications, by incorporating the words, put here in italics: 
"to ensure protection of the privacy of telecommunications; subject 
to the national security laws".

"In fact, the telecoms ministry and telecoms watchdog are under 
pressure from the security agencies, which are pressing for the 
changes in the name of state security," a senior government official 
said on condition of anonymity.

The security agencies have also asked for an amendment to Section 5. 
According to them, it should read, "Notwithstanding any contrary 
provisions of any other law, subject to the provisions of national 
security law, the provisions of this Act shall have effect", instead 
of "Notwithstanding any contrary provisions of any other law, the 
provisions of this act shall have effect."

"Providing such opportunity to intelligence agencies means putting 
them above law," said Barrister Tanjibul Alam of Dr Kamal Hossain & 
Associates, a law firm. Tanjibul is one of the solicitors to have 
prepared the original act as consultant.

"There will be no privacy of individuals if the law is amended 
according to the desire of the security agencies," a civil society 
activist said.

A civil rights activist said if the secret agencies have the 
amendments they want in place "this will make the country a police 
state".

The proposed amendments are in violation of the independence of the 
BTRC, Tanjibul observed.

Most of the protection of privacy under Section 30 of the 
telecommunications act will be curtailed in the name of national 
security, which is a vague term, said Tanjibul.

It will also undermine the purpose of the telecoms act, which was 
envisaged establishing an independent commission for development and 
efficient regulation of telecoms system and telecoms services in 
Bangladesh and for the transfer of the powers and functions of the 
post and telecommunications ministry to the BTRC.

The telecoms policy was enacted in parliament in 1998 and the 
telecoms act was passed in 2001.

	   

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