In a surveillance state

Illustration : BHANU BHATTARAI

While citizens in Western democracies try to get their governments to combat the misuse of their private data by internet companies, here in Nepal the concern is about the state itself prying on citizens.

Silicon Valley companies whose values exceed the GDP of medium-sized countries thrive in collecting and selling data in the free market of surveillance capitalism. As these companies become more powerful, governments, especially in Europe, are under pressure to protect the privacy of citizens. Nepal, on the other hand, seems to want to practice surveillance communism.

What alerts us to this looming danger is the recent convergence of the Criminal Code penalising social media content, the Media Council Bill,  and the Information Technology Bill with the Special Services Bill and the acquisition of sophisticated eavesdropping technology by the state.

Read also: No Freedom After Expression  , Kiran Nepal

No doubt, all governments need surveillance technology to control crime and terrorism by giving the intelligence community the proper wherewithal. But in all democracies, there are legal safeguards in place to protect unwarranted spying on citizens that would infringe on their fundamental right to privacy.

What is worrisome in Nepal is that the state security apparatus and investigation agencies are not just being allowed to import surveillance technology: the government is simultaneously pushing legislation that would remove current restrictions on their use.

This is made even more dangerous by the fact that it is happening at a time of unprecedented impunity, the collapse of accountability of public officials, an epidemic of extortion and corruption, and an open politico-criminal nexus. The past record of the hacking of Nepal government agency websites and the rise in cybercrime does not inspire confidence in confidentiality safeguards.

Read Also: Gagging the press in installments, Sewa Bhattarai

Nepal’s spy agencies have been on a shopping spree to import Russian, Chinese and Malaysian speech forensics technology, CCTV cameras, SIM locators, Digital Information Systems, Mobile Device Management Systems, and International Mobile Subscriber Catchers.

The Central Investigation Bureau has acquired SIM locators that will allow it to pinpoint where the user is without having to go through a telecommunication provider and obtain a court warrant.

The National Investigation Bureau which has been brought directly under the Prime Minister’s Office this month called for bids to establish a Digital Information System to integrate the data flow of various security and intelligence agencies. The Nepal Telecommunication Authority is soon getting a Rs1 billion Mobile Device Management System to keep track of phone users from the Malaysian company Nuemera (M) Sdn Bhd, which was linked in 2017 to a data leak involving 46.2 million Malaysian mobile phone accounts.

Read Also:  Nepal undermining free expression

The government has also loosened regulations governing the use of CCTV cameras, and the import of these devices doubled in 2019 to Rs970 million from the previous year. The Special Services Bill in Parliament would also allow International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) ‘Catcher’ that can intercept and tap phones. The use of these surveillance devices is so sensitive that the European Court of Justice has actually outlawed them.

The Special Services Bill gives the chief of the National Investigation Bureau the sole authority to tap phones, without a court permission. Given the prevalence of blackmail and extortion against political and business rivals, the risk of abuse of this spyware is unacceptably high in Nepal. For example, police last week leaked CCTV footage of an altercation at Kathmandu domestic airport between a female police officer at the security check and singer Astha Raut. A state agency that has no qualms about flouting rules about proper use of footage has no right to be tapping phones.

Putting together these recent decisions, new laws and pending bills in Parliament, the ruling NCP seems intent on extending control, spying on citizens to intimidate them, and silencing dissent. In most democracies, governments make laws to protect the privacy of citizens. Nepal makes laws to snoop on them.

Read also:

The Surveillance State

Creeping control over the press in Nepal Ajay Pradhan

10 years ago this week

Prime Minister Oli last week accused editors of “not having a heart”, and his ruling NCP is trying to push laws restricting press freedom. Not much different than ten years ago when it was the Pushpa Kamal Dahal-led Maoists who were doing it. Looks like the ex-democratic UML is no fan of a free media. Excerpt from an editorial in #487 of 29 Jan-4 Feb 2010.

Pushpa Kamal Dahal has done it again. He is once more blaming the messenger, the ‘big media houses’ for undermining his party. Usually when a politician repeats his accusation, it reinforces its significance. But with Dahal, the ranting now seems to have the opposite effect. He has cried wolf so often that the remark made during a speech in Sindhuli on Monday went either unreported, or was relegated to the inside pages.

Yet there is a sinister undercurrent here. The Maoists have made no attempt to hide their contempt for the notion of a free press, just as they have for nonviolent pluralistic politics. Dahal went on to accuse the media of being ‘anti-nationalist.’ This has always been the Maoist method.