Amnesty International has accused Belarus authorities of using phone networks run by some of the world’s biggest telecoms companies to stifle free speech and dissent.
In a report, published on July 7, the rights watchdog documents what it describes as the authorities’ potentially limitless, round-the-clock, unchecked surveillance that has a debilitating effect on activists and journalists.
It makes basic work, such as arranging a meeting over the phone, a risk for activists, says the report, titled "It’s enough for people to feel it exists: Civil society, secrecy and surveillance in Belarus."
“In a country where holding a protest or criticizing the president can get you arrested, even the threat that the authorities are spying on you can make the work of activists next to impossible,” said Joshua Franco, technology and human rights researcher at Amnesty International.
The report says companies, including ones owned by Telekom Austria Group and Turkcell, allow this to happen by granting the government nearly unlimited access to their customers’ communications and data.
It points out that operating in Belarus requires giving the government access to all their users’ phone and internet communications.
“So if the KGB, for example, wants to spy on them, they don’t need to show a warrant, they don’t need to ask the company to give them access,” said Franco.
Amnesty International called on telecoms companies to challenge such laws to protect their customers’ privacy.
Franco said the future of online freedom in Belarus depends on “whether telecoms companies challenge governments who overstep the bounds of privacy and free speech, or meekly comply with them to protect their profit margins.”
The report also urged the companies to inform their customers in Belarus that their data will be available to the authorities at any time.
It also called on the Belarusian government to create checks and balances for surveillance practices to bring them in line with international human rights standards.
Amnesty International says the report is based on interviews with more than 50 human rights activists, journalists, lawyers, political opposition members, technology experts and others, either in Belarus or in exile.