How do you make a secret disappear?
That’s the question Georgian officials and activists are mulling as they consider a stash of legally dubious phone and video recordings made by the Interior Ministry, mainly under the rule of President Mikheil Saakashvili.
The current Interior Minister Irakli Garibashvili has pledged to destroy what he called a "dirty archive of private lives" – hundreds, if not thousands, of recordings currently stored on ministry grounds.
The recordings, with their unsavory echoes of Soviet-era surveillance, have already been used to pressure perceived government opponents, including a notorious 2011 case in which the government used secret materials in accusing three Georgian journalists, including Saakashvili’s own photographer, of spying for Russia.
Thomas Hammarberg, the former Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, now serves as the EU's special adviser for legal reforms in Georgia. Speaking in Tbilisi last month, he called on the government to impose strict regulations on when, and how, surveillance can be ordered and used in the future.
Human rights expert Thomas Hammarberg
"The principle must be that such recording is criminal," he said. "To use them for the purpose of blackmailing is criminal. To keep them -- to just have them -- is also criminal. And, of course, to disseminate them, to leak them to others, is also criminal.
A recent review by the Georgian Parliament showed that courts have been grossly compliant in granting surveillance requests.
In 2012, for example -- during a critical election season -- Georgian courts were asked to consider 5,951 requests for permission to tap phones or trace other forms of communication. Only 12 were denied.
The new move to destroy the ministry archives could be seen as part of a larger effort by new Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili to persecute members of the Saakashvili regime.
A Complex Task
Vano Merabishvili, who is believed to have personally managed government surveillance during his eight years as Saakashvili’s interior minister, was arrested and charged with abuse of office last month in a case seen by some as political payback.
Ivanishvili’s Interior Ministry, however, says the archive purge has no political agenda. Garibashvili last month announced that one of his own deputies, Gela Khvedelidze, had been arrested for leaking a secret sex tape featuring one of his personal rivals.
Garibashvili said he had no intention of "covering for his own family members, friends, and relatives," adding that "those times are over in Georgia."
But while nearly all sides appear in favor of destroying the archives, the task of eliminating a vast collection of digital files -- easy to copy, easy to disseminate, and easy to hide -- is far from simple.
According to Deputy Interior Minister Levan Izoria, the government plans to propose an amnesty to encourage former officials who may be holding secret copies to turn their records in.
"Naturally, there are fears, doubts, and questions that some individuals might have copies of this material," he said. "We plan and we have already started negotiations with the members of the parliament about an amnesty bill. According to this bill, people will be able in a certain time period -- we are talking about one month, two months maximum -- to hand in those copies to the investigation."
It appears likely that the destruction of the records will take place under the supervision of a commission comprising members of both the government and civil society.
Transparency International and the Georgian Young Lawyer's Association, which have both played an active role in calling for the records' destruction, are expected to be part of the commission.
For now, the date for the purge has been delayed by doubts about whether all, or only part, of the archives should be destroyed.
Black Box Devices
Many observers say at least some of the records should be preserved for use in any future prosecutions involving those who ordered the tapes. The issue is complicated by the fact that the archives are not only ample but in relative disarray -- making it impossible to tell at a glance which have legal value and which are simply salacious invasions of privacy.
Transparency International's Ghia Gvilava
According to Ghia Gvilava, a member of Transparency International Georgia, the Interior Ministry has proposed a thorough review of the contents before any archive materials are destroyed.
“We have received a satisfying answer. It seems that the Ministry [of Interior] plans to distinguish between two types of material. The former is the illegally obtained footage of private lives. The latter is the material that is necessary for the investigation. These two types of recordings will be set apart so that private information will not leak and the illegally obtained material will be destroyed. That is a satisfying answer to me."
Even if the current files are satisfactorily dealt with, it is likely not to be the end of the privacy issue in Georgia.
More than 1,000 surveillance requests were submitted to Georgian courts in the first four months of 2013, under the Ivanishvili government. And the country continues to grapple with the issue of "black-box" monitoring of mobile-phone and Internet activity, which provides security services with a real-time feed of all private communications.
Transparency International and other watchdog groups have called on the Interior Ministry to remove the black-box devices from telecommunications companies.
The move would set a significant precedent in the former Commonwealth of Independent States, where black-box surveillance is widespread and has been linked to government crackdowns in Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Central Asia.
Written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar based on reporting by Nona Mchedlishvili in Tbilisi