This is the third in the series of articles published in New Age about surveillance. This was originally published on 16 February 2015.
You can access all five of the articles from this page
Telecom operators retain 6 months of SMS, other info, for law enforcers
Bangladesh’s six mobile phone operators are required to keep copies of all SMS messages sent by their subscribers for at least six months so they can be easily accessed by intelligence and law enforcement agencies, New Age has learnt.
In addition, the operators keep all ‘Call Related Information’, which includes details of all calls to and from a mobile phone, including the geo-location of the phone when the conversation took place.
‘We are required to keep this information according to the terms of our operating licence … At present we are required to keep SMS’s for six months,’ Nurul Kabir, the secretary general and chief executive officer of the Association of Mobile Telecom Operators of Bangladesh told New Age.
‘After six months the information becomes difficult to retrieve. The operators have it in backup servers, and can pull it off, but it can be difficult,’ he said.
Messages from SMS, which stands for Short Messaging Service, are also known as ‘texts’.
Each mobile phone operator has set up ‘lawful interception departments’ that operate on a 24 hour basis dealing with requests for this information.
Any one of nine state agencies can contact phone operators and ask for SMS’s and other call related information involving any mobile phone number, and the operators are required to provide the information without seeking information on the purpose of the request.
‘Under the law, no mobile phone operator is allowed to ask the reason why the information is requested. We are obliged to provide information as required,’ the senior AMTOB official said.
This system works in parallel to the surveillance of mobile phone conversations and mobile phone internet conversations by the National Monitoring Centre, which New Age reported on Sunday.
Telecom operators started to retain SMS and caller related information after the enactment in 2005 of an amendment to the Telecommunications Act 2001, which allowed the home ministry to authorise law enforcement and intelligence agencies to ‘record or collect information relating to any message or conversation of any telecommunications service user.’
A guideline published in 2006 by the Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission states that ‘the operator will ensure availability of technical and other necessary personnel on continuous 24 hours basis’ to provide the information required.
‘The requiring bodies when it is immediate and urgent, may request for information from the operators over phone or any other oral communication to be subsequently followed by written request …. The operators will be required to furnish such information forthwith i.e within 12 hours from the time such request is first made,’ it goes on to state.
The text of the BTRC guideline is contained within a petition filed seven years ago in the High Court which challenged the 2005 amendment to the law and the BTRC guideline. The petition was later withdrawn.
Each of the nine law enforcement agencies has at least one designated number permitted to call the phone operators with requests for information.
AMTOB declined to give information on the number of requests the phone operators receive each month, claiming that this was sensitive information. Marcus Adaktusson, Grameen Phone’s communication director told New Age that he did not ‘have the required information’.
However it is known that in order to deal with the large flow of requests some lawful interception departments of telecom operators employ as many as 20 employees to service these requests, though some of these staff members may also have other functions.
Last year, New Age revealed that the government had purchased software that could remotely intercept audio, video and written communications from privately owned computers and, in addition, that RAB was seeking to buy a powerful mobile spy tool which can obtain details of all mobile phone numbers operating in a particular locality.