Surveillance without any oversight
The launching of an On-site Identification and Verification System (OIVS) by Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) is undoubtedly a significant addition of a digital tool in policing. It will allow them to dig out details of anyone's NID, passport and immigration history, criminal database, previous arrest history and information about any stay in jail within seconds, simply by putting in the fingerprint of a suspect into the OIVS. The device required for the OIVS is as portable as a mobile phone and works via WiFi and mobile connections. According to a press release issued by RAB on February 28, it claims, immediate access of law enforcement agencies to various national databases including NID, Passport and BRTA has become urgent. But it is not always possible to get information directly from the National Telecommunication Monitoring Center's (NTMC) databases. Hence, RAB's Management of Information System (MIS) unit has developed its own tracking system.
About a week later, on March 9, an Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that a human rights lawyer Eitay Mack had taken the Netanyahu government to court seeking a ban on exports of spy-technology to Bangladesh. The report names Israeli company Cellebrite and claims that it has sold "spy-technology to Bangladesh's Rapid Action Battalion which allows authorities to unlock and access the data of any phone." It says the deal was done via its Singapore based entity. There has not been any response, so far, on the part of RAB.
In September 2020, the Commissioner of Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP) told a meeting on innovative ideas for policing that they would be using their own system called DRIMS for accessing national databases to identify and/or verify identities of suspects. DRIMS stands for DMP Renovated Information Management System, which suggests there could have been a previous version. Meeting notes published on the Bangladesh Police's website under the Innovation Corner tab, however, does not make it clear whether DMP's reasoning is similar to RAB, of not remaining dependent on NTMC. It comes despite the fact that DMP has set up a separate database of residents of the capital in partnership with a private company, despite public outcry questioning the motive of financing such a project by a business entity.
All these units of the law enforcing forces/agencies apparently have only one objective—to curb crime and ensure the safety and security of citizens. However, such tracking systems, despite their innocuousness, raise some serious questions too. Among those, the most important one is under which law these databases are being accessed. The official custodian of the NID database is the Bangladesh Election Commission. The RAB press release suggests that the NTMC has unlimited access to the NID database and all other law-enforcing agencies rely on them for locating or tracking their suspects. About its history and objectives, NTMC on its website says, that "With the support of the Government of Bangladesh and financing of mobile operators, National Monitoring Center (NMC) was formed in 2008. The NMC (later renamed NMTC) provides interception assistance to the law enforcement agencies by relinquishing duty on a daily basis of 24 hours a day."
It now seems that access to the NID database over the years has been widening for the law enforcing agencies. Thankfully, RAB has made it public through a press release, but the DMP seems not so enthusiastic to let others know about their DRIMS. How many other state and non-state institutions like telecom operators have developed similar capabilities and have been accessing the NID database remain unclear. Isn't it quite natural that any commercial entity financing the NTMC would be tempted to access the database for commercial gains? What are the rules and regulations in place to check any misuse of the database? Since the government allowed the National Identity Registration Authority (NIRA) Ordinance 2008 to lapse, there is no law to regulate the safekeeping and maintenance of the database. On the contrary, the Election Commission seems unable to stop the issuance of false NID cards, despite a number of media revelations about false NIDS being used by high profile criminals and thousands of fake passports being detected abroad.
Our concern, however, is more about the potential abuse of the database to stifle freedom of expression and harass political opponents and critics of the government. Although the enhancement of tracking and monitoring capacities of law enforcing agencies seems essential and helpful to curb crime, the risks of abuse stemming from the absence of an oversight mechanism are too high. If we take the number of false cases against opposition activists and dissenting voices, it is quite worrying that the usage of the OIVS will make them more likely to be detained again. These law enforcing agencies may increasingly be tempted to deploy and use such digital tools in controlling opposition demonstrations and activities.
Autocratic regimes worldwide are increasingly relying on such digital tools for surveillance on citizens. In this context, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) observes that "though state surveillance is not inherently unlawful", governments desire to enforce political repression and limit individual freedoms "may infringe upon an individual's right to freedom of association and expression".
While governments commonly justify surveillance on national security or public order grounds, the OHCHR warns that such restrictions may "unjustifiably or arbitrarily" restrict citizens' rights to freedom of opinion and expression. It contends that legitimate surveillance requires states to "demonstrate the risk that specific expression poses to a definite interest in national security or public order," and that a "robust, independent oversight system" that entrusts judiciaries to authorise relevant surveillance measures and provides remedies in cases of abuse is required. The most recent former UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, David Kaye, in a report in 2019, adds that legitimate surveillance should only apply when the interest of a "whole nation is at stake," and should exclude surveillance carried out "in the sole interest of a Government, regime or power group."
A leading US think tank, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, classifies this surveillance technology as AI technology. In September 2019, it published a report titled "The Global Expansion of AI Surveillance" detailing the technologies and schemes deployed by states across the globe, which includes Smart City Platform, Facial Recognition and Smart policing. It has also published the first Global AI Surveillance Index, which shows Bangladesh has been availing all of these AI technologies for surveillance over its citizens. In these circumstances, the need for wider discourses on oversight mechanisms and rules should not be ignored anymore, if we do not want to sleepwalk into an Orwellian society.
Kamal Ahmed is an independent journalist based in London.