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October 03, 2007

Internet user profiling and surveillance in Bangladesh

Some disturbing news from Bangladesh.

E-Bangladesh reports:
RAB (Rapid Action Battalion) members assisted by BTRC (Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission) officials are conducting house-to-house searches in Dhaka, Chittagong and Sylhet pinpointing each and every internet user with a fast connection. In an unprecedented move that clearly violates privacy rights and threatens freedom of speech and communication, a special cell comprising RAB and BTRC officials are now collecting user details — name, address, login and usage statistics — from all the ISPs (Internet Service Provider) in order to profile more than 450,000 internet subscribers in the country.


(Photo credit: E-Bangladesh)

In a memo no. BTRC/E&O/ISP-Gen.(302)/2007-1697, issued on September 26 BTRC is asking from 72 ISPs of Bangladesh the followings:

- To provide BTRC with details of bandwidth lease and usage.
- To provide details of “corporate/dedicated/shared” clients: Name, address, IP.
- To provide copies of technical agreements with connectivity providers.
- To reveal individual client MRTG URL (which monitors internet usage) with user id and password.
- Full subscription forms of users.
- ISPS must have complete information regarding the exact location of the client (No mention of what will happen with the scratch card dialup users with internet based simple registration).

Failure to comply with BTRC demands within 15 days of the letter date may result in closure of the ISP, the memo warned.

A System Administrator of one of the ISPs told E-Bangladesh:
If this continues then using internet in Bangladesh will become a crime sometime soon. We have to shut down our business. These people [RAB] enter our server rooms without permission and ask stupid questions and misbehaved. I was informed by my sources inside BTRC that these house-to-house searches will intensify from next Thursday. If they go to people’s houses like this they will stop using internet out of fear. If I have to reveal my admin password, user logins and passwords, what kind of service am I going to provide? Where in world they have found this formula?
So I think you have guessed what is going to happen. The authorities are collecting these sensitive info under duress from ISPs probably to avoid repurcussions. Every users internet usage then can be monitored and they will be within reach because they have to provide address. What will happen following the piracy of personal information to third parties and how these will effect one's personal and business lives is another worry.

It is clearly a huge blow against human rights. In many countries like USA and Germany internet surveillance and privacy of information is something which is long debated in the parliaments. If anything like this is deemed necessary for the state security then it has to be approved by a democratic parliament.

So under whose authority BTRC is doing this is a question, which every Bangladeshi should ask.

Update: BDNews reports(free registration required) The optical fiber link of the BTTB that connects the country with its online submarine cable system was snapped again 10pm Wednesday on Chittagong-Cox's Bazar highway, some 96km south of Chittagong. A BTTB official alleged that some miscreants damaged the cable on a bridge while apparently trying to steal the galvanized iron pipe that covers the fiber. The link to submarine cable was sabotaged twice in August, keeping the country isolated from the rest of the world for 29 hours.

I guess the BTRC and BTTB should concentrate on the security of its resources rather than trying to peep into internet user's private data.

Update II: BTTB has called all the ISPs for a meeting. Awaiting the outcomes.

Update III: BBC Picked up the story in its daily Parikrama of its evening show on October 4, 2007. Listen to it yourself.

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Transcripts for non-Bangla speaking readers:

Headline: Authorities in Bangladesh have taken measures to strengthen control on internet services provided.

Bangladesh Telecommunication regulatory commission (BTRC) has taken some measures to regulate the Internet usage after a meeting with the Internet Service Provider (ISP) Association of Bangladesh. BTRC has decided to create a database profile of the internet users of Bangladesh.

Its general secretary Russel T Mahmood tells BBC Bangla: “The most important thing is security. You know that people are threatening with emails, using email for various things. If these are not controlled from a central point you cannot trace them. The whole thing is to establish a control mechanism. We ISPs have corporate clients as well as individual clients. They have expected the details of these clients from us. How much bandwidth they uses, what are their IPs, what are their usage patterns these are basically the requirement from us. What we can fathom is that this is to monitor and prevent people from doing anything outside the legal boundary with bandwidth purchased from ISPs.”

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