Georgians long have claimed that their calls were monitored for political-control assurance, but turns out they have Swedish telecommunications-technology giant Ericsson partly to thank.
Following an October 30 report by Swedish public radio, Ericsson told Agence France Presse (AFP) that it had sold phone-surveillance technology to Georgia’s Geocell, a privately owned cellular operator, back in 2005. The company maintained, however, that the equipment was meant as an anti-crime tool, though acknowledged that the Georgian government "allegedly use it" for illegal wiretapping.
Publicizing tapped private conversations has been a tried political weapon in Georgia. In the heyday of outgoing President Mikheil Saakashvili's era, everytime the political temperature went up, secretly recorded conversation were dumped online or aired on TV. In 2007, when police clashed with protesters in Tbilisi, tapped phone calls became a soundtrack to the authorities’ claims about a Kremlin-orchestrated conspiracy to bring down Georgia's pro-Western government.
A new season of audio revelations began last year, when President Saakashvili’s government faced a challenge from then-opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili over conversations posted online that featured members of Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition members badmouthing both their leader and each other. Police then also released recordings of conversations allegedly linking some Georgian Dream members to the mafia. Both rights groups within Georgia and Western diplomats repeatedly have raised the issue of illegal wiretapping. But to what degree the situation has changed under the new government of Bidzina Ivanishvili is unclear.
The Georgian chapter of the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International* said in May this year that the interior ministry had installed black boxes “in the server infrastructure of all major telecommunication companies." The boxes permit " law enforcement bodies and security services to monitor all communication passing through the infrastructure, including text messages, internet and phone calls," the watchdog charged.
The group called on the authorities to remove the black boxes and ensure the period of uncontrolled wiretapping is over. To what degree the Georgian authorities have heeded this call is not yet known.
In their comments to AFP, Ericsson and Geocell passed the buck to the Georgian government, but Amnesty International argued that the companies could share the responsibility for cases of illegal eavesdropping.
It is not the first instance of a Swedish company appearing in a Caucasus eavesdropping controversy. In 2012, Swedish public television charged that the Swedish-Finish TeliaSonera, the majority-owner of Geocell, had helped the government of Azerbaijan, Georgia's neighbor, to spy on its citizens by granting the government access to systems at Azercell, a TeliaSonera filial. As did Ericsson on Georgia, TeliaSonera (in comments to Slate) put it down to "fighting crime."