The Swedish telecom giant Ericsson has supplied surveillance equipment to the dictatorship of President Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus. Opposition to the government live with the reality that the KGB secret services eavesdrop on them. At political trials both phone calls and e-mails are routinely produced as evidence.
Last Sunday, Belarus conducted a rigged presidential election, ensuring Lukashenko’s re-election to the post of President. In the process, opposition politicians have been subject to acts of violence and arrest. Their online communications have been disrupted.
Sweden and other Western countries have been sharply critical of Lukashenko, often described as the last dictator of Europe. However, Swedish technology plays a central role in the electronic surveillance equipment that protects his hold on power. Ericsson, one of Sweden’s most prominent companies, has been the supplier.
Three telecom operators in Belarus have Ericsson equipment in their networks, giving them the possibility of surveillance, according to reports that have been since confirmed by Ericsson. The companies are Life, Velcom and Beltelecom.
Beltelecom, which is under state control, owns the Belarus fiber optic infrastructure upon which the country connects to the Internet. Beltelecom also controls the service provider which enables other Belarusian telecoms to exchange traffic with each other.
Velcom, whose principle owner is Telekom Austria Group, is the license-holder for the 3G network that covers Belarus.
Life, in addition to Ericsson equipment, has an additional Nordic connection. The Belarus state possesses a 20 percent stake in the company while the remainder belongs to Turkcell whose majority shareholder is the Finnish-Swedish telecom TeliaSonera. The largest shareholder in TeliaSonera is the Swedish state.
There is nothing unusual about telecommunications and Internet service providers providing technologies for surveillance in their networks. The situation exists in Sweden and most other countries. Police surveillance to combat serious crimes such as homicide, armed robbery and drug trafficking is normal. In Belarus, where constitutional protections for privacy and civil rights are dysfunctional, eavesdropping works differently.
There the judiciary, and even the dreaded KGB, which is a direct heir to the Soviet organ of the same name, wiretap and monitor citizens. The Belarus penal code criminalizes activities that are essential rights in a democratic society. An individual engaged in an organization not formally recognized by state approval is liable to punishment of two years in prison. Poll watchers have been among those affected.
The law also allows the investigation of everything deemed "extremism". Martin Uggla, an expert on Belarus at The Swedish Institute for Democracy and Human Rights (Östgruppen), said: “This can be applied for those who [allegedly] spread false information, bringing the country into disrepute. Critics of the regime are often targeted on such grounds.”
Fear of wiretapping is part of life for those who are critical of President Lukashenko's regime, according to Uggla.
At the Swedish International Liberal Centre (SILC), Programme Officer Anna Drufva noted that the aid organization was very cautious. “When communicating with our partners in Belarus one must be extremely careful on the phone because of eavesdropping. We use the telecom network in other ways when we communicate,” she told DN.se.
Ericsson defends its business in Belarus as in line with international practices.
”The possibility for lawful interception of traffic is incorporated in all the equipment we sell, and it is in line with the guidelines established by the Swedish Foreign Ministry, UN and EU," wrote Ericsson Media Relations a written reply to DN.se.
Ericsson, maintaining that its presence in Belarus has positive effects, elaborated: "Together with our partners we have worked hard to improve the lives of the inhabitants of Belarus by providing affordable telecommunications and new types of services so that the development of telecom services contributes positively to the economy and society."
As previously reported by DN.se, observers increasingly identify the technology as an effective tool of repression by regimes such as Lukashenko’s. The German-Finnish telecommunications company Nokia Siemens was investigated for its sales of wiretapping technology to Iran. A resolution by the European Parliament criticized the company in harsh terms. An Iranian dissident who suffered imprisonment has sued Nokia Siemens for its complicity in his persecution by the regime. Ericsson said that the equipment sold to Belarus does not provide the opportunity for mass eavesdropping that the Nokia Siemens technology transferred to Iran.