Activists in Belarus are facing increased surveillance from the government, according to a new report from Amnesty International, and telecommunications companies are facilitating it. The report, published today, sheds light on how powerful surveillance has forced many activists underground, while underscoring the importance of encryption as a way to evade censors.
The report from Amnesty International, a London-based human rights watchdog, is based in part on interviews with more than 50 activists, including LGBT rights advocates, human rights workers, independent journalists, and lawyers living in Belarus or in exile. It describes how the government’s large and secretive surveillance program has been used to stifle dissent and free speech, whether by eavesdropping on email or phone conversations, tracking the locations of activists, or seizing private information to prosecute or blackmail them. As a result, many activists have begun avoiding email and phone calls altogether, making it increasingly difficult to carry out their advocacy work. Nearly all of the activists interviewed said they now protect their data with encrypted email services, chat apps, and hard drives — tools that Amnesty describes as an “essential” part of their work.
“Most people are afraid to speak openly on the phone.”
“Most people are afraid to speak openly on the phone,” one independent journalist told Amnesty. “It’s like part of your mindset. You assume from the beginning that you live in fear, that everything is bad, that you cannot control or influence it.”
Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, frequently described as “Europe’s last dictator,” has gradually tightened his government’s control over the internet in recent years, in what rights groups say is an attempt to stifle opposition. A law passed in 2014 expanded the state’s power to block websites without first requiring judicial approval, and in 2015, Belarus announced a directive that would allow the government to block online anonymization tools like virtual private networks (VPNs) and the Tor encryption service. Amnesty notes that there’s no sign yet that the government has begun to block Tor, though Joshua Franco, lead author of this week’s report, says that activists fear a crackdown.
In the US and Europe, much of the debate surrounding encryption has centered on terrorism and national security. Law enforcement agencies have argued that tech companies should provide them with “backdoor” access to the encrypted data of suspected criminals, but Apple and other major companies have said that doing so would jeopardize the security and privacy of their users. In a phone interview, Franco said that the plight of Belarusian activists sheds light on the benefits of encryption, which he says are too often overlooked.
“That’s really strong evidence, to me, that the emphasis on terrorism and crime when we speak of encryption is really misplaced and incomplete,” said Franco, a technology and human rights researcher at Amnesty. “You need to see the role this is playing for people trying to do legitimate activism in a place like Belarus, where without this encryption they’d be in real trouble.”
© Max Sarychau
The engine behind Belarus’ surveillance apparatus is SORM — a powerful surveillance system, first developed by the Russian KGB, that allows authorities to monitor email and phone communications in real-time. All internet and mobile providers operating in Belarus are required by law to make their systems compatible with SORM, and to retain user data for up to five years. Authorities can remotely access the data without notifying telecoms or customers, and under vaguely defined legal justification.
The three largest mobile carriers in Belarus are MTS, a Russian-Belarusian joint venture, Life:), which is 80 percent owned by the Turkish company Turkcell, and Velcom, a subsidiary of Telekom Austria Group. In response to Amnesty’s inquiry, the Swedish company Teliasonera, which owns 38 percent of Turkcell, said it has expressed “the importance of freedom of expression and privacy” to Turkcell, and that its policies state “that governments should not have direct access to a company’s networks and systems.” Telekom Austria Group said it is obliged to follow Belarusian law, and that it had raised “challenges” to government surveillance practices, though it did not provide examples.
Other telecoms did not respond to Amnesty’s inquiries, but the report says that there is no public evidence to suggest that they are taking steps to mitigate or account for surveillance in Belarus, and that they therefore “appear to be failing in their duty to exercise due diligence regarding these human rights concerns.”
“an asymmetrical battle with powerful surveillance apparatuses.”
“It is simply not enough for them to point to the law as justification for this,” says Edin Omanovic, a research officer at Privacy International who was not involved in the Amnesty report. “As a hugely profitable industry, they have a responsibility to actively resist the use of such a surveillance model in a much more coordinated and substantial way,” including transparency reports and challenges to government requests.
Experts fear that the situation for activists in Belarus and neighboring countries may only worsen. Adrian Shahbaz, research manager at the US-based rights group Freedom House, notes that the government has recently put out tenders for equipment that would enable it to trace VoIP communications and access data that has been deleted on smartphones.
“Throughout the region, authorities from Moscow to Tashkent are determined to find new ways to undermine tools such as Tor or VPNs in order to take greater control over the flow of information online,” Shabaz said in an email. “Encryption technologies are often the only tools that activists possess in an asymmetrical battle with powerful surveillance apparatuses.”
Encryption has provided a way for activists to circumvent mass surveillance in Belarus, but Franco says that it still hasn’t allowed them to reach the audiences that their advocacy depends upon.
“Lots of activists were complaining to me and saying, ‘look, we know about security, we know about encryption, we know how to keep this sensitive information secret,'” Franco says. “‘But at the end of the day, if we keep everything secret, we’re just a secret group. So how do we actually do the activism that we’re trying to do?'”