Georgia: Reformers Wait, While Government Watches

Thomas Hammarberg, the European Union’s special adviser on legal and constitutional issues in Georgia.

By Elza Ketsbaia

It’s been more than a year since the new Georgian government denounced the previous administration for spying on its own citizens, and yet the surveillance continues.

Despite watchdog organizations’ concerns and complaints, the Georgian government continues to use the latest technologies to listen to its citizens’ phone calls, read their text messages and monitor Internet traffic.

Thomas Hammarberg, the European Union’s special adviser on legal and constitutional issues in Georgia, calls the ongoing situation “a jungle (of) misuse of the possibilities of technology to record almost everything.”

He says that in addition to phone calls, the Georgian government has direct access to emails, text messages, and social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

Lika Sajaia is one of the few Georgian citizens with direct knowledge of the government’s surveillance capabilities. Since last year, she has been a specialist with the Georgian Parliament’s Justice Committee Working Group.

Sajaia told the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) that the government continues to listen via a “constant connection” installed in telecommunications companies that funnels data directly to the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA), noting, “The ministry can record about 21,000 users’ (mobile) phone calls at the same time.”

Sajaia says the working group was set up last summer to examine the legal and technical details of wiretapping in Georgia, specifically how mobile companies and Internet providers deliver information to law enforcement entities.

The working group met with all mobile companies and Internet providers operating in Georgia, including Magti, Geocell, Beeline, SilkNet, Caucasus Online, and Akhali Kselebi between the summer and autumn of 2013.  The meetings were divided into two parts: the legal ramifications were discussed with lawyers, while the technical operations were reviewed with company technicians.

Sajaia confirms that tracking equipment “was purchased (during the former administration) for the Ministry of Internal Affairs.” While it is physically located in telecommunications offices, she says, “it is completely controlled by the staff of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.” She said the working group was able to confirm for the first time additional details on how the surveillance system works:

  • Sophisticated “black box” electronic devices, which can cost several hundred thousand dollars, provide links between mobile companies such as Geocell, Magti and Beeline and law enforcement personnel. Once they have received court permission, police can use the devices to track phone calls, text messages and Internet use in real time without any involvement by Internet providers and mobile companies.
  • Through the black boxes the MIA can intercept a phone call before it reaches its intended recipient; for example, if user A calls user B, the “constant connection” starts working automatically before user B even hears a ring.
  • Once a wiretap is approved, the law enforcement agency can track phone conversations without any limitation, for as long as needed.  The black boxes can track text messages at will, as well as any information related to mobile phone communications except the content of phone calls.
  • Thanks to special software, the MIA can also monitor Internet traffic obtaining information about the users’ activities in real time.

The current government appears to be pulled in two different directions regarding surveillance practices.

When the current Georgian Dream coalition took control of the government in 2012, officials at the MIA were harshly critical of the surveillance practices of the former United National Movement (UNM) government led by ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Irakli Gharibashvili, then the Georgian Dream’s Minister of the Interior, was scathing last year about what he called the Saakashvili administration’s “dirty archive” of secret sex videos featuring politicians, journalists and others whose behavior the government might want to influence through blackmail.


Lika Sajaia of the Georgian Parliament's Justice Committee Working Group.

But while Gharibashvili destroyed hundreds of the illicit videos in a public demonstration, the government’s distaste for surveillance seems limited to just the “dirty archive” type of illegal surveillance.


Since then ministry officials have refused to either discuss the black boxes or to repudiate current or future “legal” surveillance, saying these are necessary tools to fight crime and terrorism.

Today Gharibashvili is the Prime Minister of Georgia.  His former ministry continues to refuse comment on ongoing surveillance practices, saying to do so would violate state secrecy laws. In an official letter, the MIA cited “the 4th paragraph of 7th article in the Law about State Secrets” as its justification for not answering any questions.

Ministry PR officials, who insist that the government does not conduct surveillance without court permission, appear to be irritated when asked directly about the black boxes.

“How you know that those black boxes even exist? Do you have any evidence?” asked Nino Giorgobiani, head of the MIA’s public relations department. “I am now telling you that our government has a political will not to listen to its own citizens.”

In an email response to a request for comment, a Ministry spokesperson wrote, “Unlike before the Parliamentary election in 2012 the Ministry does not undergo total and massive illegal monitoring of its citizens … Surveillance only takes place based on court permission for criminal investigation purposes.”

While no single agency tracks surveillance statistics for the whole country, court records indicate the current government is filing fewer requests for surveillance permits than the previous government, and is getting turned down more often.

Shota Rekhviashvili of the prosecutor’s office said that in 2012, the last year of the UNM government, courts approved all of the 1,567 surveillance permits sought by the ministries of finance and internal affairs. Since the election, only seven months’ worth of data has been compiled; as of May 2013, 632 applications were filed, 549 were approved and 83 rejected.

Transparency International (TI) Georgia has been investigating surveillance practices in Georgia for more than a year. Director Eka Gigauri was a member of the special commission set up by former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili to investigate thousands of illegally obtained files including the infamous sex videos.

Mathias Huter, project manager at TI, told OCCRP that the black boxes are large pieces of hardware installed in the telecommunications offices, approximately one cubic meter in size and filled with processors and hard drives.

“Through this server all the data from the companies runs to the Ministry of Internal Affairs,” he explains. “There is a channel out that allows the MIA from the Moduli building (where the former constitutional defense department—now the State Security Agency--was based) in real time to have access to all the information.”

Although the black boxes are on the premises of the mobile companies, employees do not know how much information is accessed, which information, about whom or even how long surveillance is conducted. The companies are only responsible for equipment maintenance, Huter said.

He believes that the “Georgian government now basically monitors everybody without really anybody complaining (about them) watching them.”

Human rights defenders and social activists in Georgia believe that the law must be amended to protect citizens’ privacy. They also think that the MIA fears change and that it should stop resisting calls for reform.

Hammarberg believes that fear is two-fold.  “First (MIA officials) really do not know what will be the outcome of the discussion about the rules and they do not want to say anything that might contradict the future regulation. And secondly, they think that (surveillance) is important for the fight against terrorism and organized crime.”

Lasha Tugushi, a Tbilisi newspaper editor who served with Gigauri on the commission to destroy the sex videos, says that the “current process is out of control and it is important to create a system that can put (surveillance) into a legal framework.”

A package of proposed amendments has not yet been taken up by Parliament. One  draft, put together by Tugushi, fellow journalist Zviad Koridze and Sajaia, suggests how complex the process will be, as it advocates changes in different laws including the Law on Operational and Investigative Activities, the Code of Criminal Procedure, the Law on Electronic Communications, the Law on Protection of Personal Data and the Rules of Procedure of the Georgian Parliament.

The amendments would distribute responsibilities between the authorities and the telecommunications companies, greatly expanding the duties of judges and requiring prosecutors to submit concrete evidence to obtain warrants for surveillance.

Judges would oversee the whole surveillance process and limit its length. Any materials obtained by law enforcement would have to be destroyed after a certain period of time.  Other advocates suggest creating guidelines for judges, so they fully understand the impact of their decisions regarding people’s personal data.

One of the biggest areas of contention between law enforcement and those seeking reform is what role surveillance will play in investigations. Reformers want it to be the last measure attempted, not the first.

Sajaia says they got strong resistance to this idea when discussing it with law enforcement personnel.

Reformers also worry that political considerations continue to permeate the discussion. On Feb. 13, Georgian financial police launched an investigation into whether Geocell, the second biggest mobile company in Georgia, has evaded taxes.

Huter notes that Geocell was the only telecommunications provider in Georgia to question the government’s use of surveillance in strongly worded public statements.

“Geocell publicly said that what is happening in Georgia is unacceptable, moreover, they also allowed Ericsson, which had sold (the black boxes to Georgia), to make an  announcement on this issue, so the company was quite proactive,”  he says.

In recent weeks, civil society groups have become so concerned about the continuing surveillance that they have launched a public service advertising campaign, “It Affects You,” featuring various well-known Georgians decrying the idea that the government is needlessly spying on the population.

Meanwhile, representatives of the former ruling party are quick to jump on the issue. Giorgi Vashadze, a member of Parliament from Saakashvili’s UNM, claims that the new government has purchased additional equipment to increase the capacity of the surveillance, although he offered no proof of this.

He says “the current government listens twice more than the previous government” in an attempt to establish absolute power.

He believes they would do better to learn from UNM’s mistakes. “The sense of total control prevailing during the former government was a very serious mistake of UNM.”