Before the election in Georgia: the secret service is listening


Status: 25.10.2021 10:22 a.m.

From kindergarten teachers to German ambassadors – nobody in Georgia is safe from government wiretapping. Recordings will be published again before the upcoming election, there are no consequences.

By Silvia Stöber,

“Serious Concerns” – the accredited ambassadors in Georgia’s capital recently deployed heavy diplomatic artillery to express their outrage. The EU invited the Georgian envoy in Brussels to speak.

In the middle of the bitter election campaign leading up to the local elections on October 2nd and 30th, 52,000 transcripts of thousands of secretly recorded conversations were made public via several media. It also affected representatives from numerous countries – from Germany to the EU and the USA to Israel. At a meeting with the Foreign Minister of Georgia, they referred to the Vienna Agreement of 1961. It ensures the inviolability of diplomats, the premises they use and their communication in the host country. This has apparently been broken many times.

In the leaked files, conversations from all areas of Georgia’s society appear – from politics to the media and civil society to teachers and kindergarten teachers. Many of those affected confirmed the authenticity of the quotes. This suggests that it can affect anyone in Georgia. The recently leaked files are united by the fact that they relate to the topic of the church.

Ericsson provided wiretapping technology

But the topic is by no means new. Even during President Mikhail Saakashvili’s two terms in office, material from opponents of the government was repeatedly released to the public. When his party was voted out of office in 2012, the successors of the Georgian Dream party promised enlightenment and change.

At least a lot was known back then. The organization Transparency International (TI) in Georgia learned from employees in telecommunications companies that the Ministry of the Interior was operating “black boxes” in the server infrastructure of all major telecommunications companies. This would have given the security services the opportunity to monitor 21,000 cell phone numbers at the same time. At that time it was unclear to what extent the Ministry of the Interior used these possibilities for uncontrolled wiretapping.

Even then, the legislation required a permit for wiretapping as part of “operational investigative measures”. According to TI, however, the judges usually agreed without much knowledge of the investigation. Then as now, the proximity of the judiciary to politics is considered to be one of Georgia’s main problems with democracy.

In autumn 2013, Swedish media reported that a spokesman for Ericsson had confirmed the sale of the “black box” technology to the Georgian government in 2005. The technology is intended to fight crime within the framework of the law. But it is possible that it will be used illegally. Ericsson said it sold the technology to the Georgian cell phone company Geocell, which was a subsidiary of the Swedish-Finnish telecommunications company TeliaSonera until 2018.

Eavesdropping technology still in use

Many of the promises made after the change in power in 2012 fizzled out. Further leaks, including sex tapes, could only initially be presented as old material that was recorded under the previous government. The currently published files are from the period after 2012.

Unlike in the past, they do not relate to individual people, but this time are grouped under one topic. This either requires an enormous number of people who overhear practically everything or filter software that works with search terms.

In addition, those affected report that the files also contained conversations that were not held on the phone, but in closed rooms or on the street. The reports on the use of the Pegasus spy software the Israeli company NSO. The authoritarian leadership of Georgia’s neighboring state Azerbaijan also used them to spy on female journalists, for example. NSO had stated that the spyware would be made available “exclusively to verified governments” and under “stricter licensing conditions”.

“Practically everyone can be bugged”

Opposition politician Teona Akubardia is Vice-Chair of the Defense and Security Committee in the Georgian Parliament. She criticized in an interview with tagesschau.dethat there is a lack of supervision over the wiretapping of the SSSG in the civil area. A sub-group of their committee could inspect the files that were locked up. By law, this group should include two opposition members. But this is not the case at the moment due to a lengthy selection process. Both the ruling party and Saakashvili’s UNM party rejected a questioning of the SSSG head by parliament.

Akubardia said: “Virtually everyone in Georgia can be wiretapped with no way of preventing it. Only the Prime Minister and the government would be able to.”

Instead, the government denied all allegations, accused the opposition and even defended the action, as did the general secretary of the ruling party and mayor of Tbilisi, Kakha Kaladze. He said the SSSG should “wiretap anyone who it deems necessary” – including diplomats.

So far, no consequences have been drawn from the scandal. There were no layoffs and no announcements about the reform of the security authorities and their oversight, as organizations like Transparency International have been calling for for years.

Pressure potential of authoritarian states

This is extremely worrying for residents of Georgia, diplomats and, moreover, people who seek refuge in Georgia. In recent months, many dissidents from Russia, Belarus and other neighboring countries have come to Georgia because they hope for security in the comparatively democratic, liberal and pro-Western state.

But it is questionable how great this security is in the end. A journalist from the neighboring state of Azerbaijan claims to have been brought across the border to his home country in Tbilisi in 2017 in cooperation with Georgian authorities and sentenced to prison there. Only recently, a cooperation agreement between the SSSG and the Belarusian secret service KGB came into force, which provides for cooperation also in the event of threats to the security of both countries.

Georgia is dependent on energy supplies from Russia, gas from Azerbaijan and security cooperation with Turkey. That is enough pressure potential on the Georgian leadership. In the current wiretapping scandal, she shows that she sees no responsibility for protecting privacy – whether for her own citizens or others who temporarily live in the country.

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