The government is planning to install surveillance equipment on the networks of Cambodia’s mobile phone operators and Internet service providers (ISPs), a senior Interior Ministry official said Tuesday, vindicating concerns about inspections the ministry quietly conducted on telecommunications firms in October.
“We are waiting on a decision from the upper level to install the listening equipment,” said Chhay Sinarith, director of the Interior Ministry’s internal security department.
“But what is important for us now is that we can strictly control people using the Internet and mobile [networks].”
In October, officials from Lieutenant General Sinarith’s department visited the headquarters of mobile phone and Internet providers to examine their network equipment and look through their billing records and data logs. The meetings followed an October 7 letter in which Mao Chakrya, head of the Telecommunication Regulator of Cambodia (TRC), ordered 12 mobile phone operators and ISPs in the country to cooperate with investigators.
Lt. Gen. Sinarith said Tuesday his department does not presently have the necessary “listening equipment,” and is waiting on the money to purchase and install the devices.
“We don’t have the listening equipment yet, but we do plan to install it,” he said. “We don’t have the budget to do it now.”
Lt. Gen. Sinarith said that once the equipment is installed, only a court order could authorize its use.
“We have the right to listen to any account of a user if the court issues a warrant that allows us to do so,” he said. “We cannot do whatever we want because it would affect the rights of the people.”
In an interview last week, Lt. Gen. Sinarith said the October inspections were meant to target people who use Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, to carry out online scams.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said Tuesday that the government would only “officially” use the surveillance equipment with approval from the court.
“[W]e will listen in on a suspect with the agreement of the prosecutor and investigating judge. But if they listen without approval from the prosecutor and investigating judge, they cannot use the data officially,” he said.
“I wish to state that the authority cannot put in listening equipment [for] general accounts because the law does not allow it,” he added. “But they can do so for cases or issues that involve the court and national security.”
Rights groups on Tuesday roundly condemned the use of spying equipment by a government that lacks transparency, in tandem with courts that lack independence.
“Although inspecting network equipments and gaining access to communication data under the official court order for investigation is legitimate, it is also a matter of serious concern on privacy of individuals who are clients of telecommunication networks—especially those who are politicians, activists and diplomats,” Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, said in an email.
Assurances that eavesdropping equipment would only be used with judicial approval offered little comfort, he said, as “the court cannot publicly ensure its independence and its capacity to protect the information collected through this access permits.”
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said via email that there might be a more sinister reason for installing data-monitoring equipment than officials have admitted.
“It seems that one of things that the Cambodian People’s Party took away from the last election is that they cannot permit the Internet to serve as an alternative communications pathway bypassing government control of the media,” he said.
“All indicators point to greater internet control and censorship which will be bad for both the Cambodian people as well as international business in the country.”
(Additional reporting by Matt Blomberg)