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GD Divided as MPs Debate Surveillance Regulation Bill
Civil Georgia, Tbilisi / 27 Nov.'14 / 02:38

Parliament started discussion on November 26 a controversial government-backed bill on key part of surveillance regulation, which has divided the GD ruling coalition with Republican Party pushing for a separate, competing bill as the deadline for tackling a long-standing problem of security agencies’ direct, unfettered access to telecom operators’ networks looms.

The bill, co-sponsored by chairperson of human rights committee MP Eka Beselia, her deputy MP Gedevan Popkhadze and chairman of defense and security committee MP Irakli Sesiashvili, is widely believed to be actually drafted by the Interior Ministry officials.

Debates mainly revolve around the issue of who should have direct access, or ‘key’ as it has been informally dubbed, to telecom service providers’ networks for the purpose of carrying out lawful monitoring of communications by the security agencies in a way to prevent practice of illegal tapping.

Presenting the bill to lawmakers at the parliamentary session on November 26, MP Beselia said that her proposal introduces ‘two-key system’ in which one ‘key’ will remain in the Interior Ministry and another one will be at the Personal Data Protection Inspector’s Office, whose authorities have been increased as a result of recent legislative amendments. Beselia and other co-sponsors of the bill insist that the idea of this proposal is that after obtaining court warrant, the Interior Ministry, although having direct access to telecom operators’ servers, will not be able to independently launch interception and monitoring of communications without having green light from the Office of Personal Data Protection Inspector, which should be empowered with relevant technical capabilities.

But the opponents say that actual wording of the bill, full of complex technical terms about lawful interception management system, hash codes and log files, is far from what its sponsors are trying to portray and leaves room for the Interior Ministry to bypass personal data protection inspector.

“What the co-sponsor [of the bill] declare might be acceptable for me, but regrettably those points are not actually reflected in the bill to guarantee minimizing chance of illegal surveillance. This bill will have the right to exist if this and some other issues are addressed,” said MP Gigla Agulashvili of the Republican Party, which is part of the Georgian Dream parliamentary majority group.

MP Zurab Japaridze of the UNM parliamentary minority group said that the Interior Ministry supports this bill because it does not actually deprive the security agencies of their direct and unfettered access to telecom operators’ networks.

“Let’s imagine a wardrobe to which the Interior Ministry has access – personal data protection inspector stands at the door of that wardrobe, monitoring how many times this door will be opened and closed by the ministry. But what this bill does not say is that the Interior Ministry will be able to make a backdoor to the same wardrobe without personal data protection inspector’s even knowing about it, and the inspector won’t be standing at that backdoor to monitor the ministry. That’s the problem with this bill,” MP Japaridze said.

Lawmakers from ex-defense minister Irakli Alasania’s Free Democrats party, which has quit the GD ruling coalition earlier this month, is also against of the government-backed bill.

Several lawmakers from the Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia (GDDG) party, chaired by PM Garibashvili, have also spoken out publicly against the bill; among them are MPs Eliso Chapidze and Tamar Kordzaia; although the latter is a member of GDDG party, she is often on the same page with the Republican Party.

Opponents also criticize a provision according to which it is the Interior Ministry responsible for providing technical capabilities to and creating relevant software for the personal data protection inspector. 

Critics also argue that the bill gives Office of Personal Data Protection Inspector authorities well beyond its monitoring functions. Opponents say that by giving the data protection authority power to technically allow the security agencies to launch lawful interception of communication, turns the office of personal data protection inspector from an observer to part of the process.

“The only function of inspector is to control whether the surveillance is carried out within the scope authorized by the court. But by giving ‘key’ to inspector’s office the latter will become executor of an action over which the inspector’s office itself should be providing an oversight – there is a clear conflict of interests,” said MP Shalva Shavgulidze of the Free Democrats party.

Personal Data Protection Inspector, Tamar Kaldani, also said that oversight function of her office involves only monitoring and not becoming the part of process.

Discussion of the bill will continue on November 27 and the vote is also expected on the same day. For the approval the bill will require support of majority of lawmakers, who will be present in the chamber at the time of voting, but not less than 50 votes.

Lawmakers are also expected to launch discussion of a separate, competing bill on the same issue on November 27. The bill was tabled by Republican Party MP Vakhtang Khmaladze, who chairs parliamentary committee for legal affairs. According to his proposal the ‘key’ should be held by Georgian National Communication Commission, instead of data protection authority.

December 1 is the deadline for the Parliament to pass this key part of surveillance regulation.

This summer the Parliament passed package of legislative amendments setting tighter rules for the law enforcement agencies to carry out surveillance activities, including through introduction of higher standards of justification required for security agencies to obtain court warrant on surveillance, as well as through increasing authorities of the personal data protection inspector.

But legislators left key issue, involving security agencies’ unrestricted capabilities of direct access to telecom service providers’ networks, unaddressed. November 1, 2014 was set as a deadline for adopting a law to address this long-standing issue.

But persisting disagreements over what kind of arrangement should be introduced made it impossible to table a bill by the deadline and the Parliament extended the deadline for four months.

This extension of the deadline, however, was vetoed by President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who instead offered tighter deadline till December 1, which the GD parliamentary majority had to accept.

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