Norwegian Telenor accused of ‘flagrant violation’ of EU sanctions with surveillance system

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Norway’s Telenor is still awaiting approval for the sale of its Myanmar business and such a sale will include a spyware system capable of real-time monitoring of phone calls, text messages and internet usage. By selling to a military-linked firm, the telecom giant could soon commit a ‘flagrant violation’ of EU sanctions in Myanmar, Burma Now writing.

The so-called lawful interception system is made by a German company called Utimaco and their systems are designed to help telecommunications companies comply with electronic surveillance laws around the world. The company writes on its website that the technology “intercepts a range of public communications services in real time, including phone and video calls, messages…faxes, emails…file transfers and other Internet services”.

The sale of Telenor has been widely criticized and some claim it is illegal and by selling to a company linked to the junta it will mean in short that the system will allow the army to spy on millions of users in the country , writes Myanmar Now.

A Telenor staff member who wishes to remain anonymous told Myanmar Now that Utimaco’s system is a system not only Telenor but all other operators in Myanmar had to install some time ago.

“The interception system was installed at Telenor Myanmar a few years ago. But it’s not just Telenor. All other operators in Myanmar also had to install it,” the staff member told Myanmar Now.

“I don’t know if other operators have given authorities access to the interception system, but Telenor hasn’t because there is no relevant law for us to do so,” added the staff member.

Myanmar Now has seen documents leaked to activist group Justice For Myanmar which show Telenor installed the system in May 2018 after buying it from Huawei in February of that year.

Myanmar Now writes that just weeks before Telenor installed the system, the April 2018 EU regulation, implemented under Norway’s Sanctions Act, prohibited the provision of “telecommunications or Internet surveillance or interception of any kind” to the Myanmar government, either directly or indirectly.

Justice For Myanmar spokesman Yadanar Maung says Telenor violated the new ban by installing the system, even though the company bought the system before the sanctions were passed.

“This flagrant violation of EU sanctions must be investigated by the Norwegian and German governments,” she said.

Additionally, Myanmar Now writes that the Utimaco system was integrated into the military-run Ministry of Interior monitoring center in 2020, with a fiber optic cable connecting the ministry to the system. According to Telenor however, the ministry which oversees both the police and its spy agency, Special Branch, was not allowed access to customer communications through the system; it was simply a legal obligation to install the infrastructure so that the authorities could request access if necessary.

When asked for comment, Telenor spokeswoman Cathrine Stang Lund neither confirmed nor denied that the company would transfer a Utimaco surveillance system to M1 Group as part of the sale. “The company is leaving Myanmar precisely because of concerns about surveillance,” she told Myanmar Now.

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