Aug 14

Bangladesh to deploy Israeli mass surveillance system: A move towards a totalitarian state?

Often making popular appearances in social media, Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh was not long ago touted as being among the top influential Muslim women leadership in the world today. Having successfully negotiated mass upheavals and major political challenges over the past several years, the 67 year old, now in her third term as premier, is firmly poised to become a favorite with the West with her seemingly firm grip on power and aura exuding confidence. However, all may not be what it seems on the surface regarding Bangladesh, and an unstable democracy seems to be just the tip of the iceberg.

In a move reminiscent of the NSA surveillance controversy in 2005, the Palestine based Electronic intifada filed a significant report on the 10th of August entitled “Bangladesh to deploy Israeli mass wiretapping system”, where the author, while investigating a rather blandly presented piece of news in the Daily Star, the most widely read English newspaper in Bangladesh, uncovered significantly perturbing details of plans to purchase equipment worth Tk 200 crore for mass wiretapping of Bangladeshi phone and internet communications. One of the several firms set to get a share of the Home ministry contract is Israeli-American firm Verint Systems, which has been instrumental in exporting surveillance developed and experimented upon Palestinian telecommunications by the occupying Israel forces. The news is significant on several fronts and has wide geopolitical implications genuinely imperceptible to the casual observer, and thus requires proper analysis in order to be understood for what it really bodes for the future of both the region and its denizens.

The first issue to be taken note of is the gravity of the implications from such a deal from the side of the Bangladeshi government. With a steadily worsening law and order situation and correspondingly dismal record on human rights, the government has been quick to blame anything ranging from extremism to the political opposition and has used the media to this effect; a recent article tries to explain the mentality in light of the widely publicized death of blogger Niloy Neel. Though the practice of the monitoring began back in 2013, the relevant issue to be explored is not the act of spying itself, something that all governments undeniably indulge in, but that of the ends which are being achieved through the process. In July past, the government of Switzerland halted the export of mobile phone monitoring technology to Vietnam and Bangladesh out of fears it could be misused for ‘the purposes of repression’. An NSA report leaked out by Wikileaks from June 2013 details how Bangladeshi security agencies including DGFI, RAB and NSI – which the New Zealand intelligence agency GCSB had passed information to – were known ‘to target, torture and kill a range innocent people including ethnic and religious minorities, political opponents, reporters and labour movement activists,’ and that human rights abuses were “so widespread and systematic”. Bearing this in mind, its leaves no dearth in conviction as to what will be outcome of the implementation of a step up of surveillance on such a massive scale in a developing country which, despite reaching lower middle-income status in 2015, still remains highly food insecure with roughly a quarter of the population not having regular access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food.

However, apart from the above, a more serious issue may be brought into the fray, one following the footsteps of claims made by geopolitical analyst Mohammad Munshi in his India Doctrine (1947-2007). According to Munshi, Indian interference in the internal affairs of its neighbours, whether political, diplomatic, or through its intelligence arm the R&AW, is aimed at achieving regional supremacy and unparalleled hegemony. In the case of the issue of mass surveillance being discussed in this article, it is hard to disagree. The same Israeli surveillance firm, Verint Systems, won a contract to facilitate Indian government interception of encrypted electronic communications back in 2013. The ambitious scale of the Indian surveillance, when made public via a batch of emails by whistleblower site Wikileaks, revealed startling details. Indian intelligence agencies were reportedly trying to acquire sweeping interception capabilities, including on phones abroad. Whether that surveillance translates to neighbouring countries, whether secretly or in collusion, is beyond the scope of this article. However, sifting through the details above, it is hard to ignore coincidences as mere coincidences. The Israeli firm Verint is co-incidentally at the heart of both instances of mass surveillance in India and Bangladesh, a factor which calls into speculation of involvement of intelligence agencies such as Mossad and R&AW, Moreover, the current relations between the Indian government and the ruling Bangladeshi party Awami League, especially in light of the recent visit by Indian premier Modi and India’s unwavering support to the Awami League after the widely discredited National Elections on 2014, suggest that there is more than meets the eye.

In conclusion, it may be surmised that moves of mass surveillance, especially in the case of Sheikh Hasina’s Bangladesh, are indicative of a shift to the implementation of the concept of totalitarian state, Not only does this bode ill for individuals whose facebook efforts to organize a garments workers protest rally get be viewed as anti-state activities, it threatens the very fabric upon which our democratic societies are built. That sadly includes freedom of expression, human rights and numerous innocent human lives.