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Bill Seeks More Oversight of Surveillance, But Leaves Key Issue Unaddressed
Civil Georgia, Tbilisi / 15 May.'14 / 23:58

Parliament is set to pass with its first reading on Friday package of legislative amendments increasing oversight mechanisms over government surveillance practices, but the proposal leaves out a clause tackling long-standing problem of security agencies’ ‘black box’ spy devices in telecommunications service providers’ networks.

Although welcoming introduction of additional oversight mechanisms, among them, stricter criteria for obtaining court orders and increasing authority of personal data protection inspector, human rights and watchdog groups say without curtailing law enforcement agencies’ capabilities of having direct access to telecommunication provider companies’ networks, the bill will fail to solve problems related to illegal eavesdropping.

Parliamentary committee for legal affairs discussed the package of bills on May 15 and endorsed it to be debated at a parliamentary session on Friday on the condition that discussion would continue on how to address issue of ‘black boxes’ till November 1, 2014 – deadline, however, may change and move forward.

The package of bills, which has been pushed for by a rights and watchdog groups, has been under consideration for more than ten months already. Although it was supported by some GD lawmakers as well, the proposal met strong opposition from the Interior Ministry.

The dispute comes down to one issue – the government, in particular the Interior Ministry, wanted to remove from the bill a provision, which curbs its unrestricted, direct access to telecommunication companies’ server infrastructure – capability, which reportedly allows law enforcers to monitor over twenty thousand mobile phone numbers simultaneously.

According to this disputed clause, after obtaining court order, authorizing eavesdropping, law enforcement agencies should carry out surveillance and get requested data only from telecommunications service providers. But the Interior Ministry argued that notifying operators should not be required as it will increase risk of leaking sensitive information and undermining operative activities of the law enforcement agencies.

Interior Ministry representatives were not present at the May 15 parliamentary committee hearing. GD MP Shalva Shavgulidze, who led the process of drafting the bill and who was involved in consultations with the Interior Ministry, said that the law enforcement agencies’ argument is that there is no technical capacity available right now to monitor and prevent possible leakage of information from the telecommunication operator companies.

In order to find the best possible solution that would take into consideration security concerns and on the other hand would also rule out arbitrary wiretapping, MP Shavgulidze said, it is proposed to continue discussions and to leave out this issue from the bill for now. According to this proposal a commission with participation of civil society representatives and invited foreign experts will elaborate legislative amendments specifically on this issue by November, 2014.

MP Shavgulidze said that he’s “90% confident” that this issue will eventually be resolved in favor of depriving the Interior Ministry direct, unrestricted access to telecommunication operators’ networks.

Lawmakers from the UNM parliamentary minority group were offering to define in the bill that the solution should be found based on a principle that law enforcement agencies will have no direct access to networks. But MP Shavgulidze disagreed, saying that it would not be appropriate to limit possible options for solution in the process of working on the issue.

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