Online spaces, privacy and surveillance in Bangladesh
“In enabling the creation of various opportunities for communication and information-sharing, the Internet has also facilitated the development of large amounts of transactional data by and about individuals. This information, known as communications data or metadata, includes personal information on individuals, their location and online activities, and logs and related information about the e-mails and messages they send or receive.” This communications data is “storable, accessible and searchable,” and when it is combined and aggregated and used by the state, it can be “both highly revelatory and invasive.”1
Ever since electronic media were opened to private sector involvement in the early 1990s, successive Bangladeshi governments have encouraged the development of an open internet access and communication regime in the country. Bangladesh currently has 33 million internet users, representing almost 20% of the total population, and ranks 138th out of 190 countries in the Household Download Index compiled by Net Index.2 The World Economic Forum’s 2013 Global Information Technology Report3 ranked Bangladesh 114th out of 144 countries worldwide, with poor scores for its infrastructure and regulatory environment, even though an affordable and competitive communication service is generating exponential growth for users. In addition, localisation and the availability of phonetic Bangla software have contributed to the development of local blog and content hosting services.4 The current government in Bangladesh has a plan to establish what it calls a “Digital Bangladesh by 2021”, with the aim of integrating internet access with development efforts in various sectors.
But with widespread digital communication comes a greater threat to security and privacy, and uncertainty on how state and other institutions will address those issues while protecting the rights of individuals.
Globally there are two models available to protect citizens. One is the authoritarian model, where the problem is addressed through the development of a surveillance regime with filtering at the control points or on the backbone of the internet, and monitoring of the use of computers. A more liberal approach, on the other hand, is to make people aware of the risks, to develop their capacities and to set down punitive measures that require proper evidence and respect individual rights.5 Bangladesh is often swinging between these two models, and there is a sense in which it is addressing the situation on an ad hoc basis.
Policy and political background
Communication content can reveal a range of sensitive information about an individual, including a person’s identity, behaviour, associations, physical and medical data, race, colour, sexual orientation, national origins and viewpoints. Or it can show trends in a person’s location, movements, interaction or behaviour patterns over a period of time through metadata or other forms of data associated with the original content. Therefore, this requires significant protection in law.
Internationally, regulations concerning government surveillance of communications vary in approach and effectiveness, often with very weak or non-existent legal safeguards.6The Constitution of Bangladesh touches on the issues of privacy and individual security in several places. Article 11 says that the republic shall be a democracy in which fundamental human rights and freedoms and respect for the dignity and worth of humans shall be guaranteed. Article 43 states that every citizen has the right to be secured in his or her home against entry, search and seizure, and the right to the privacy of his or her correspondence and other means of communication, unless there are any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interests of the security of the state.
In Bangladesh cyber crime is addressed with reference to several laws, including the Information and Communication Technology Act, 2006; the Penal Code, 1860; the Pornography Act, 2012; and the Bangladesh Telecommunication Act, 2001.
The Bangladesh Telecommunication (Amendment) Act, 2006, allows agencies to monitor the private communications of people with the permission of the chief executive of the Ministry of Home Affairs, under a special provision for the security of state and public order. This act was again amended in 2010, enabling officials to intercept the electronic communications of any individual or institution in order to ensure the security of the state or public order.7
The act was further amended in 2013 by granting law enforcers the right to arrest any person without warrant, and by making the crimes non-bailable. Section 57 of the ordinance states that if any electronically published material causes any deterioration of law and order, tarnishes the image of a person or the state, or hurts the religious sentiment of people, then the offender will be punished for a maximum of 14 years imprisonment.8
The Bangladesh Telecom Regulatory Commission (BTRC) also has the authority to tap and monitor phone calls if deemed necessary. The commission’s International Long Distance Telecommunications System Policy9 has enabled the country to set up three private international gateways, six interconnection exchanges and one international internet gateway. This policy says the operators of these will arrange the connection, equipment and software needed for online and offline monitoring, and will provide access for “lawful interception” by law enforcement agencies. All operators are also required to provide the records of call details (voice and data) whenever necessary. The BTRC may also set up a monitoring centre at the country’s submarine cable landing station which connects Bangladesh’s internet backbone to the rest of the world.
In January 2012, the BTRC created an 11-member Bangladesh Computer Security Incident Response Team (BD-CSIRT) to look into the issues of cyber crime. This team was mandated to use wiretapping and internet surveillance if necessary. The government has also set up a “cyber tribunal” as per Section 68 of the ICT Act of 2006 to deal with cyber crime-related issues. The Right to Information Ordinance of 2008 was modified and gazetted in 2009. This ordinance has a provision for the proactive disclosure of information ensuring better transparency in the administration, but the amended ICT Act of 2013 may discourage the administration to disclose any information fearing the application of Section 57 of ICT Act.10
An insight into the chronological events: A saga of lone or dissenting voices
As discussed, the legal framework (such as the ICT Act and its 2006 and 2010 amendments) allows law enforcement agencies to monitor and intercept private communication. Therefore, communication surveillance probably happens at a level we are not aware of. There was a report11 recently that Bangladesh is buying advanced communication surveillance equipment, which certainly validates this supposition. This came out more publicly in 2007 when, in a circular, the BTRC requested all internet service providers (ISPs) to submit the names, addresses, logins, location and other usage statistics of their users.12 What they did with that information is still unknown. It has been reported that the BTRC often serves informal orders to different domestic service providers to provide information or block certain content – the ISPs are legally bound to do this through their licence and operations agreements with the BTRC.
However, there is the problem of cyber crime too. For example, a number of district web portals that were inaugurated by the prime minister in January 2010 were hacked immediately afterwards. Different government and media websites, including those of leading newspapers, are attacked quite frequently.13
The use of social media is growing exponentially. Facebook, for example, is one of the most visited websites in the country, attracting more than 10% of the nation’s total internet users. The platform – or different pages within the platform – has been blocked several times in Bangladesh. In 2013 a Facebook report showed that the Bangladeshi government requested the profile information of 12 users.14 A newspaper report suggests that the government asked Facebook on three occasions to remove content from its site.15 Popular video platform YouTube has been blocked repeatedly in recent times. First it was blocked in March 2009 after a recording of a meeting between the prime minister and army officers was published on the site. The block was lifted several days later. YouTube was blocked again in September 2012 following a controversial video clip on Islam – the block was later lifted in June 2013.
Although the reason given for the latter block was that the post hurt religious sentiment, many believe that the actual purpose was to exert more control over online content and behaviour. What was more worrying was the perspective of a Bangladeshi court which expressed the desire to find ways of facilitating future blocks of websites and pages.16The court ordered the shutdown of five Facebook pages and a website for content deemed blasphemous towards Islam, while demanding that content hosts and creators be brought to justice for “uploading indecent material.”
Hurting religious sentiment is increasingly becoming a major issue when it comes to surveillance. Authorities seem to be ill prepared, both at the policy and implementation level, to define the issue properly. In October 2012, in the southeastern district of Ramu, temples in Buddhist neighbourhoods were attacked and vandalised following an allegation that the Facebook profile of a Buddhist showed an anti-Islamic image, inciting local Muslims to retaliate.17 Similarly, in another incident in November 2013, vandals attacked Hindu houses and properties claiming that a local Hindu boy had uploaded something derogatory towards Islam on his Facebook profile, although this was later denied by the person in question.18
Social media played an important role in mobilising tens of thousands of people who gathered at Shahbagh Square in Dhaka in February 2013. This was in protest against a light court sentence given to Abdul Qader Mollah, an alleged war criminal of the 1971 liberation war. Social, cultural and pro-independence political forces later joined and strengthened the non-violent demonstration, causing some observers to compare it to the 2011 protests in Egypt’s Tahrir Square. But, in response, Mollah’s supporters rallied against what they called a conspiracy by “atheist bloggers”. On 15 February 2013 armed assailants followed, attacked and killed a blogger, one of the organisers of the Shahbagh demonstration, outside of his home.19 This shows how people see security threats as linked to online activism, and how surveillance and monitoring are also happening between citizens.
Many argue that the government uses security as an excuse to tame dissenting voices, and Section 57 of the ICT Amendment Act of 2013 gives enough power to the government to arrest and confine anyone without a warrant. Online activists are already finding themselves in an uncomfortable zone regarding the ICT Act amendment, and the ways in which it allows surveillance of communications. In one instance, a professor at a public university was sentenced to a six-month jail term by a court for failing to appear in court (due to the fact that he was in Australia at the time) to stand trial regarding his Facebook statement against the prime minister.20 In another incident, a college student was arrested after posting some “derogatory comments” about the prime minister and her late father, Bangladesh's founding leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. These incidents and the government response created heated debate, both online and offline.21
The government, on the other hand, senses a real threat. It cites the example of a failed coup conspiracy in 2012, where a group of ex-military officials used Facebook as the platform to prepare and plan to oust the government.22 No wonder the government’s response was to create the BD-CSIPT to identify the websites and persons or institutions that engage in activities that can be seen as harmful to the state, society, political and religious beliefs – whether using mobile phones, a simple website, or social media.23
Action steps: What’s next?
Bangladesh still does not have any proper legal framework to protect privacy and to counteract surveillance. Communication surveillance happens both officially and unofficially without much challenge. Civil society has a bigger role to play in this context. Civil society organisations can raise awareness among citizens and can push the government to educate and empower people on issues of privacy, cyber crimes, etc. This is preferable to the authoritarian approach of blocking or filtering content, or conducting surveillance. A comparative study on what other countries have done and what they have achieved could be a useful background resource to create this awareness and understanding. Activists can prepare guidelines on user rights and obligations and what can be done if someone feels violated by communication surveillance. Civil society also needs to speak up on the unconstitutional provisions in the ICT Act amendment and other legal provisions that allow surveillance.
1 Frank La Rue, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of expression and opinion, in his landmark report on state surveillance and freedom of expression during the 23rd session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in April 2003. www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session23/A.HRC.23.40_EN.pdf
6 Rodriguez, K. (2013, February 13). Surveillance Camp IV: Disproportionate State Surveillance - A Violation of Privacy. Electronic Frontier Foundation. https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2013/02/disproportionate-state-surveillance-violation-privacy
8 Daily Star. (2013, October 9). ICT (Amendment) Act, 2013: Right to Information and Freedom of Expression under Threat. ASK. www.askbd.org/ask/2013/10/09/ict-amendment-act-2013-information-freedom-expression-threat
12 Rezwan. (2007, October 5). Internet user profiling and surveillance process initiated in Bangladesh. Global Voices Advocacy. advocacy.globalvoicesonline.org/2007/10/05/internet-user-profiling-and-surveillance-process-initiated-in-bangladesh
13 Freedom House. (2013). Op. cit.
16 Rezwan. (2012, March 24). Bangladesh: Court Orders Shutting Down of Facebook Pages for Blasphemous Contents. Global Voices. globalvoicesonline.org/2012/03/24/bangladesh-court-orders-shutting-down-of-facebook-pages-for-blasphemous-contents
17 Freedom House. (2013). Op. cit.
19 Freedom House. (2013). Op. cit.
21 Ray, A. (2012, February 17). Bangladesh: Government observation of Facebook ignites debate. Global Voices. globalvoicesonline.org/2012/02/17/bangladesh-facebook-under-government-scanner-ignites-online-debate
23 Times of India. (2012, January 26). Bangladesh unveils cyber watchdog. The Times of India. timesofindia.indiatimes.com/tech/it-services/Bangladesh-unveils-cyber-watchdog/articleshow/11640219.cms
This report was originally published as part of a larger compilation: “Global Information Society wach 2014: Communications surveillance in the digital age” which can be downloaded from http://www.giswatch.org/2014-communications-surveillance-digital-age.
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