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Bangladesh activists are on high alert over the government’s reported purchase of Israeli spyware

DHAKA: Bangladeshi activists have called for clarity on the government’s reported purchase of sophisticated surveillance technology from Israel amid concerns over possible violations of constitutional rights.

Israeli daily Haaretz reported earlier this week that Bangladesh had bought the controversial spyware for nearly $6 million from a company run by a former commander of the Israel Intelligence Service’s technology unit. Since Bangladesh has no ties with Israel, the purchase was reportedly made through Cyprus and the technology reached the South Asian country in June last year.

When the news broke, Transparency International Bangladesh issued a statement Thursday night saying the use of such technology risked violating several basic constitutional rights.

“Citizens have the right to know the government’s precise explanation of the extent of purchase and use of technology that undermines the privacy of their personal information and communications, security, freedom of expression and thought, and poses a potential threat to life and livelihood . Iftekharuzzaman, Executive Director of Watchdog, said in the statement.

“There is no doubt that this technology has already reached the relevant government agencies.”

Officials from the National Telecommunication Monitoring Center, a government agency responsible for monitoring communications data, were unavailable for comment despite repeated attempts to reach them.

A member of the ruling Awami League and special assistant to the Bangladesh Prime Minister, Biplob Barua, told Arab News he saw the Israeli media report as an attempt to disinformation the government.

“As far as I know, the government didn’t buy any Israeli equipment… Today, anti-our country propaganda is everywhere. If any Israeli media published any news about it, I can say that it is a conspiracy against our government,” he said.

“We have no diplomatic communications with Israel. If any report of theirs is published, they will be better able to express themselves about it. From our side it is completely unfounded. It is part of the ongoing organized anti-government propaganda.”

However, the opposition had heard about the Israeli spyware purchase before the Haaretz report.

“We also heard earlier that the Bangladesh government has bought Israeli surveillance equipment. As politicians or political activists, we are the victims of these devices,” said Shama Obaed, secretary of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

“With the support of these devices, anyone can be framed with false cases… It violates the privacy of every citizen.”

But for some security experts, like Maj Gen (Rtd.) Abdur Rashid, head of the Institute for Conflict, Law and Development Studies in Dhaka, governments buying surveillance technology to fight crime is justified.

“In Bangladesh we have a major threat of extremism and transnational organized crime. These groups are very strong. There are problems with illegal drug trafficking, arms trafficking, human trafficking… The criminals are being captured by mobile tracking technology,” he said.

“So far we have not received any information that these devices are being used against the opposition party. Purchasing the devices does not necessarily mean that those devices are already in service… We will monitor whether these devices are being used against people’s constitutional rights.”

Intelligence surveillance of communications is a growing concern for Bangladeshi civil society.

Prominent rights activist Mohammed Nur Khan told Arab News that this has been happening for quite some time. Buying Israeli spyware only made it more problematic.

“We have no diplomatic relations with Israel and buy Israeli equipment through a third country. It’s nothing but a clever act… People’s money is spent on buying this type of device. From a moral point of view, it doesn’t have a strong basis.”