Govt set to monitor phone calls despite writ pending with High Court

Taib Ahmed, NewAge, August 27, 2008. 

The government is going to monitor and coordinate tapping of telephone calls through a national monitoring centre, comprising officials of intelligence agencies, under the home ministry while a writ petition challenging telephone tapping has been pending with the High Court for 27 months.
   

According to sources in the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission, a national monitoring centre will be set up under the home ministry to coordinate the tapping of phone calls and monitor call activities.
   

The centre will be run by a committee with representatives of the commission, Rapid Action Battalion, the police and two intelligence agencies.
   

The commission chairman, Manzurul Alam, however, told New Age on Monday the committee would have no representation of the commission.
   

Asked about telephone tapping, Manzurul said, ‘The national monitoring centre, which will work under the home ministry, will monitor call activities, if felt required.
   

He also said a brigadier general of the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence will head the centre.
   

The national monitoring centre will record calls with the set-up provided by telephony companies, and interconnection exchange and international gateway operators, said sources in the commission and the operators.
   

Three private international gateways, six interconnection exchanges and one international internet gateway recently started operation under the commission’s international long distance telecommunications system policy.
   

According to the policy, interconnection exchanges and international gateways, access network service providers (mobile operators), and internet telephony and VSAT hub operators will provide the commission with necessary connections, equipment, instruments and software for online and off-line monitoring.
   

‘The operators will provide access for the law enforcement agency for “lawful interception” as per the Bangladesh Telecommunications Act 2001 including necessary equipment and software,’ the policy said.
   

Telephony operators will also provide call details record or any other monitoring facilities of voice and data calls, or both, for online and off-line monitoring by the commission, the policy said, adding the commission would set up a monitoring centre at the submarine cable landing stations, if required.
   

‘Monitoring facilities will be established by respective operators for voice and data communications using international private leased circuit. IPLC monitoring facilities should also be extended to the commission and the law enforcement agency for online and off-line monitoring including necessary equipment and software by respective operators,’ said the policy.
   

Sources in the commission and the international gateway and interconnection exchange operators said the process was on to set up teletapping equipment which might go into operation by December.
   

‘We have held a series of meetings with an intelligence agency, with representation in the national monitoring centre, at its headquarters regarding teletapping,’ a senior technology officer of interconnection exchange operator M&H Telecom, which recently started operation, told New Age.
   

He, however, said the national monitoring centre was yet to get into its full shape.
   

Asked exactly how and to what extent call activities would be recorded by the national monitoring centre, he said, ‘The equipment of the national monitoring centre, to be set up at the headquarters of an intelligence agency, will have connectivity with each of the telecom, mobile, interconnection exchange and international gateway operators.’
   

A senior technology officer of an international gateway operator said, ‘The process of procuring the tapping equipment is now in the final stages and they will be set up at the headquarters of an intelligence agency.’
  

It has now been easier to record voice calls with the commissioning of six private telephony operators which will handle especially overseas calls as the country did not have such technology earlier, he said.
   

‘Law enforcement agencies will tap voice calls only when the authorities concerned will allow them to,’ he said.
   

Although the government has finalised the teletapping process, it is yet to submit its reply to two rules issued by the High Court asking it to explain the legality of the provisions for telephone tapping.
   

‘No reply to the rules has yet been filed with the court,’ a law officer in the attorney general’s office told New Age on Tuesday.
   

‘If the case is enlisted for hearing, we will submit the reply to the rules to the court,’ said the state attorney.
   

A High Court bench of Justice M Awlad Ali and Justice Zinat Ara on May 18, 2006 issued the rule on the government to explain why the Telecommunications (Amendment) Act 2006, made on February 16, 2006 making provisions for telephone tapping, should not be declared unconstitutional.
   

The government and the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission were also asked to explain the legality of the action taken by the commission in issuing the guidelines on March 16, 2006 tagging new conditions to licence of telephone operators under the amended law.
   

The court passed the order after hearing a writ petition filed by the New Age editor, Nurul Kabir, and the treasurer of the human rights coalition Odhikar, Tasneem Siddiqui.

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