Mobile phone calls to be monitored in Latvia

  • 2001-04-05
  • Jorgen Johansson
RIGA - The Latvian government is currently considering stepping up internal spying activities in the country, following a request by the national security commission and the parliament's defense and internal affairs committee to fast-track new legislative changes in the telecommunication law.

The new amendments, if adopted, would allow Latvia's Constitution Protection Office (CPO), the country's top intelligence agency, to start eavesdropping on mobile phone calls via the country's two mobile phone operators, Latvijas Mobilais Telefons (LMT) and Tele2, with phone tapping equipment the agency bought last year.

Dzintars Kudums, chairman of the Defense and Internal Affairs Committee, said the government's decision on using this sort of equipment for information gathering is long overdue.

"We are expecting understanding from LMT and Tele2, since they have experience from dealing with the international market, where this is common," Kudums said.

Last year, the parliament decided Latvia's top intelligence agency should have the opportunity to listen in on the country's mobile phone callers. For this, the CPO was given 819,000 lats ($1.35 million) and permission to purchase phone tapping equipment. There will, however, be additional costs when the gear is incorporated with the two Latvian mobile phone operators' in-house systems.

Davids Dane, spokesman for Latvijas Mobilais Telefons, said his company believes that it has paid enough in taxes to the state already – 17.5 million lats ($27.8 million) last year and 48 million lats since the company was founded – and is therefore questioning why they, as a private company, should pay for matters of interest to the state.

"Just like the government is planning and approving of the state budget, LMT's owners are approving the company's business plan and financial resources, which are planned carefully and invested in the company's development," Dane said.

Ilvars Metnieks, Tele2's marketing director, said the company understands the need for the state to fight crime, but Tele2 does not understand why it should pay for the linking of the state's eavesdropping equipment with their system.

"We have to be 100 percent sure that only criminals will be the ones the state will listen in on," he said: "For us, our clients come first."

Kudums said it is unfortunate that the two companies weren't informed earlier about the new changes, but still sees it as normal practice for them to pay.

"I don't see it as trespassing from the government's side," he said. "The problem is we are late; we should have informed them about this a long time ago."

The Ministry of Transport's informatics department director, Andris Virtmanis, said the new draft amendment for phone tapping is not as elaborate as the European Union's regulations, which specify what kind of mobile phone monitoring is allowed and in which cases.

"In the new amendment to the telecommunication law here in Latvia, it is forbidden to listen to any phone calls without permission from a court judge, but it is not so detailed," Virtmanis said. "We should try to form it more like in the EU."

Uldis Dzenitis, deputy director of Latvia's Constitution Protection Office, said it is absolutely necessary for police, counter intelligence and the military defense to have this new system.

"It's important for us to be able to monitor mobile phone calls," Dzenitis said. "In other countries, mobile phone operators know that they might be required to work with the state on this issue."

He was, however, not willing to say when the eavesdropping operations will commence for national security reasons. But citizens should not fret, he said, because the small fraction of people who might be monitored in this operation are all criminals and not ordinary people.

However, it will, according to Dzenitis, be impossible to tell if one's phone call is being tapped.

"There will not be any clicking sounds or tones or anything. This equipment is very advanced," he said.