Growing phone call leaks in Bangladesh put citizen privacy at risk

On Data Privacy Day, experts, rights groups speak for strict government stance, urge revised media role to ensure privacy.

Growing phone call leaks in Bangladesh put citizen privacy at risk

A recently resigned junior minister in Bangladesh has been the latest case of a phone leak.

Criticism mounted after Murad Hassan, then minister of information and broadcasting, made derogatory comments about Khaleda Zia, head of opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and her female family members.

Amid the growing protest against him and calls for his removal from the Cabinet, a leaked phone call of the junior minister from two years ago surfaced on social media in which he was delivering shallow words and potential rape threat to a Bangladeshi cinema actress. The conversation in the leaked phone talk had took the demands of his removal to a new high and created a quite embarrassing situation for the government.

Days after, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina asked Hassan to resign and he quit.

Mamunul Haque, a religious leader and critic of the government, is another example. His controversial arrest took media headlines for days last year and remains as an issue in 2022. After his arrest, a number of conversations with his second “wife” got leaked and surfaced on social and mainstream media.

Surveillance, hacking phone call are unlawful, violate privacy rights

On Data Privacy Day falling on Jan. 28, rights experts and academics, described the violation of privacy as unlawful and media interest to broadcast leaked conversations as unethical and unprofessional.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, human rights activist Md. Nur Khan said security agencies across the globe allegedly put surveillance in the name of the state's “safety and security”.

“Hacking phone calls or putting surveillance on any citizen is a clear violation of human rights, conventional law and all forms of ethics as well as one’s rights to keep personal data secret as given by the country’s constitution,” he said.

“So, it (violation of privacy) cannot be continued in any means or in the name of state security,” continued Khan, who is also the secretary general of Ain o Salish Kendra, a legal aid and human rights organization.

In many cases, he claimed, people who are members of opposition parties and practice freedom of expression are being victims of the state surveillance by authorities in Bangladesh for so many years.

“Sadly, some mainstream media in Bangladesh, which either collect or are provided by anyone, publish or air such leaked phone calls enthusiastically, which is for sure an unethical job.”

Despite hundreds of incidents, only a handful of victims has sought support from the government agencies.

Without the approval of the state, no one can record or leak phone calls as only the security agency owns surveillance equipment. So, people do not believe that the government agencies could help victims, the rights activist said.

According to global media reports, that the Bangladesh government procured mobile interceptor device from Israel. However, the government categorically denied the allegation.

“Ordinary people believe that the telecommunication regulatory or the country’s security agencies are to be blamed for hacking phone calls. So, logically, people do not feel safe or convinced to seek legal help from the government agencies,” Khan added.

Media needs to revise its role

Naadir Junaid, a communication and journalism professor at University of Dhaka, said personal privacy must be ensured in a civilized society.

“As far as media responsibility comes, it completely goes against the ethics of journalism. Media cannot promote this stuff by broadcasting one’s personal data or conversation or leaked phone calls.

“The government must take a strong stance towards ensuring privacy. And, if it continues, we all someday will be victims of privacy loss,” he stressed.

Government says working on law to ensure privacy

Subrata Roy Maitra, vice chairman of Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission, told Anadolu Agency that the government is doing necessary work to enact a law to ensure personal privacy.

The official too said that secret surveillance or recording one’s call without any consent and its leak are completely unlawful and a violation of personal privacy.

“State agencies on special grounds for state security with legal consent can record phone calls of any individual on a limited scale. This is our (the government’s) stance on the matter.

“We mainly look after issues related to the state security and take the necessary action. For individual cases, if anyone files an appeal to the commission, or files a complaint to security agencies or comes through court, then we take an action,” Maitra explained.