Over the 28 years of Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s repressive rule, Belarusians who oppose him, despise him, or just want to criticize any particular policy could feel relatively safe expressing their views inside the confines of their homes.
Now they may want to think again, legal and digital experts say -- especially if they use things like GPS tracking apps, online dating services, or a voice-controlled virtual assistant like Alisa, a product of the Russia-based Internet company Yandex.
Lukashenka signed a decree last week requiring telecom operators and website owners to connect to a new, state-designed system that would allow the Belarusian KGB to surveil almost any online activity.
The October 18 decree crystalizes a law passed last year that on paper gave state security agencies unlimited powers to spy on citizens’ digital footprints, including at-home smart devices, but provided no mechanism for doing so.
“If surveillance through Internet resources and databases sounded like a potential threat before, it is now clear how they are going to do it in practice,” Netobservatory and Za BYnet, two groups that monitor online freedom in Belarus, said in a research note released in cooperation with the legal aid organization LegalHub.
The state’s expansion of online intrusion will not take effect immediately as the system is not yet complete and companies will need time and money to install it, the legal and digital experts said.
In theory, the power to access a citizen’s online footprint can only be undertaken as part of an active investigation, but there is no one overseeing the actions of the security services, the experts said.
In combination with the 2021 law, the new decree allows the KGB to access information that Internet providers, websites, and databases store on individuals – from the pages they visit and the messages they post on forums to their activity with online banking services, dating sites, and more.
Websites and online services often store data for years and the decree does not prevent state security agencies from searching for information prior to it entering force
The decree is the latest crackdown on freedom and human rights ushered in by Lukashenka since tens of thousands of Belarusian citizens took to the streets in protest after he claimed victory in an August 2020 presidential election whose results they contend were massively falsified.
Stringent Laws, Violent Suppression
Lukashenka’s government violently suppressed the demonstrations and began passing stringent laws in an effort to stamp out the protesters' ability to organize and willingness to resist.
The state targeted Telegram, the social media app that played a crucial role in helping citizens communicate, spread information, and organize activity such as protests. The authorities detained administrators of opposition Telegram channels and threatened charges against those who subscribed to them.
The October 18 decree does not specifically define the type of websites, Internet services, and databases that must connect to the surveillance system, potentially giving the Belarusian security services wide leverage over how to implement it.
Nor does it specify that only domestic companies are covered by the new law, opening the possibility that the authorities would seek to pressure foreign websites.
The note by Netobservatory, Za BYnet, and LegalHub suggested that the KGB could target the largest online players first, including Google, Yandex, Facebook, VK, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, and Telegram.
Foreign companies are highly unlikely to concede to such demands, having resisted similar pressure in Russia, a much larger and lucrative market.
Websites and online services that refuse to cooperate could be banned, the note said.
Belarusian citizens will not know which websites are connected to the surveillance system, potentially prompting many to avoid any website or online service that they think the state will target.
Belarusians unsubscribed en masse to Telegram channels the state considered “extremist” for fear of arrest.
The note from the three expert groups said devices connected as part of “smart home” systems could be of interest to the KGB. The devices -- linked for purposes such as home security, heating, and energy conservation -- can contain a wealth of information about an individual, such as their location.
The stored data of intelligent voice assistants that record conversations could potentially be accessed by the KGB, the experts said.
“Have you already set up a ‘smart home’ system from [state provider] Beltelecom with sensors and video cameras, or are you still in doubt?” they wrote, suggesting that Belarusians risk compromising their privacy and playing into the hands of the KGB if they do so.