In 2014, UK-based surveillance watchdog Privacy International published a procurement tender document issued by the Rapid Action Battalion showing they were looking to buy mobile phone surveillance equipment known as 'IMSI Catchers'.
IMSI Catchers, or 'stingrays' are powerful spy tools used to intercept, and listen to mobile telecommunications. They are portable devices used to covertly intercept mobile communications by infiltrating GSM networks and capturing the International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) of the user.
When activated they send a signal that tricks mobile phones in a defined area into thinking they are communicating with a legitimate mobile phone network - that is why they are also known as 'fake cell towers'. In this way, IMSI Catchers allow users to indiscriminately gather data from thousands of mobile phones in a specific area and at public events such as political demonstrations, for which their highly portable 'backpack' versions are very popular.
A subsequent investigation by Privacy International together with Swiss magazine WOZ uncovered that representatives from the RAB were being hosted in Zurich by a manufacturer of IMSI Catchers, Neosoft. Swiss authorities confirmed to Privacy International that they have reason to believe that the RAB representatives were in Zurich to receive technical training from Neosoft on how to use the surveillance technology.
Because such training would require an export license, and none was sought by NeoSoft, the Swiss export authorities referred the company to federal prosecutors for a potential violation of export control laws, and the deal fell through.
At the time, the then Additional Director General of RAB, Colonel Ziaul Ahsan, told the media in Bangladesh that the import of some equipment from Switzerland had been stopped "just before the shipment of the materials" by Swiss authorities due to campaigning by a human rights organisation (Privacy International).
But that didn't stop RAB from continuing to look for IMSI catchers. In a June 2019 update, Privacy International reported three more tenders from the paramilitary unit, in November 2015, December 2016, and January 2017, for the purchase of such equipment.
It doesn't end there. Since procurement tenders are public documents, UNB has been able to find further such tenders by RAB on the website of the Central Procurement Technical Unit (from February 2019, for Backpack IMSI Catcher), the Daily Sun newspaper (December 2020, for Backpack IMSI catcher), and the RAB website itself (February 2019, for Backpack IMSI catcher).
Nor are RAB the only ones. Publicly available tender documents show that in July 2018, the Bangladesh Police sought to buy an "IMSI Monitor/Mobile Tracker" and a "Back Pack IMSI Monitor/Location Finder". There is also one from October 2017 in the name of the police, for "IMSI Monitor/Mobile Tracker" and "Location Finder Equipment."
Additionally, Privacy International has reported on the basis of publicly available documentation that:
I) Four police officers received approval to travel to Canada in June 2019 for a "Factory Acceptance Test (FAT) relating to shipment of 04 pcs Back Pack IMSI Monitor/Location Finder."
II) In June 2019, six police officers received approval to travel to Canada for training on "Back Pack IMSI Monitor/Location Finder Tuning Antenna."
III) Six police officers were slated to receive training on using an "IMSI Monitor/Mobile Tracker" in Germany in September 2019.
From what is available in the public domain, we also know at least one case, in which the tender process was followed all the way through to purchase and import of the said equipment.
In March 2021, the Toronto Star reported that Canadian tech company Octasic had sold IMSI catchers to RAB in 2019. Octasic's CEO Sebastien Leblanc confirmed to the Star that the Canadian government had approved the export of IMSI catchers to Bangladesh, and that the technology itself was exported.
What all this indicates is that the capability to intercept, eavesdrop and store away - for use later, for better or for worse - our phone conversations extends significantly beyond the National Telecommunications Monitoring Centre, the nationally-mandated body for such activity, which does its own procurement.
Until 2013, the NTMC was based at the headquarters of the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, the military intelligence agency. It is now under the Home Ministry. DGFI, however, continues to be involved in its operation, and it is headed up by a brigadier general.
It has long been alleged of course, that advanced surveillance equipment procured to fight militancy, as Bangladesh became embroiled in the global War on Terror, was also being used on the civilian population. Usually the leaks have seen the opposition figures or critics of the government get the wrong end of the stick and rail at the intelligence services. But lately, it's been more of a mixed bag.
Take the leaked conversation between the prime minister's adviser on private sector affairs and business, and the law minister last week- possibly the most high-profile leak the country has witnessed since the famous conversation between Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Leader of the Opposition Khaleda Zia in 2013.
Or the one of the disgraced state minister for information and broadcasting, Murad Hassan, in December. Both would seem to have been aimed at embarrassing the government.
The law minister has since come out and defended the content of the conversation he engaged in. The home minister however, was forced to address how it may have occurred. It would be investigated he said, while reiterating that the NTMC is the only agency authorised to carry out lawful interceptions.
Clearly however, the capability to engage in such activity is not restricted to the NTMC. The diffuse ownership of the requisite technology - IMSI catchers - among different agencies means the entire apparatus of state surveillance is a lot more decentralised than the home minister would have us believe, or what it once was.
That means less scope for exercising control over not only what gets recorded, but also what gets leaked.
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