Surveillance in Georgia

Swedish Radio has reported on the role of foreign telecom companies in Georgia. I have come across related issues on surveillance activities when exploring the Georgian human rights situation. In a report published at the end of September I had a chapter on the surveillance activities which was developed during the previous government and which is now being discussed in the country. The text is below:

Up to the end of August 2013 the Ministry of Internal Affairs identified in its own premises and in different other locations approximately 24 000 video and audio tapes which were recorded without Court authorisation. The sheer number of the tapes indicated that illegal surveillance was a systematic practice in violation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Humna Rights.

A large amount of the recordings appeared to have been obtained for a political purpose. Among individuals targeted are politicians who were in opposition at the time, journalists and activists in civil society bodies. A number of videos showing intimate sexual situations were also found; the purpose of which appears to have been to be used as tools in black mailing.

The Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs in the new Government published one of these videos, obviously to harm a critical journalist who was depicted in that particular video. The Deputy Minister was dismissed and charged, but the case illustrated the danger of these recordings to the personal integrity of those targeted.

The Government set up a Special Commission to guide the authorities in the handling of these illegal recordings and monitor the implementation of its recommendations. As making such recordings must be seen as serious crimes there was a need to review the files for the purpose of preparing possible indictments of those responsible. However, another absolutely central concern was that the integrity and privacy of those who have been recorded were protected. The recordings had to be destroyed and strong measures taken to collect those recordings which may have come into private hands. The illegal videos recording private life situation have now been destroyed.[1] Steps have also been taken to ensure that possession of such material be criminalised.

The newly appointed Data Protection Inspector is member of the Commission and she will generally have an important role to represent the interest on the broader public in the face of privacy threats. It is important that the office of the Inspector get broad support and necessary resources.

All technical and physical surveillance activities need to be regulated. No surveillance activities directed against individuals should be decided or conducted by the prosecutor, MIA or other parts of the executive without proper involvement of the judiciary and based on law.

The continued presence of surveillance equipment in the premises of telecommunication operators, giving the MIA automatic access to all communications via the private providers, is another concern which must be addressed. The possibility of some access to inter-personal communications could be essential in the fight against organised crime and terrorism. However, the risk for misuse means that there is a need of legal regulations and democratic and judicial control over all activities in this domain.

[1] On September 5 the Special Commission destroyed 110 CDs containing in total of 144 episodes of hidden-camera footage of intimate life (total size: 181 hours and 32 minutes). Members of the media were invited to attend and witness the destruction of materials.

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