Norway’s Telenor is still waiting for approval of the sale of its Myanmar business and such a sale will include a spyware system that can monitor in real-time, phone calls, SMS, and internet use. By selling to a military-linked company, the telecom giant may soon commit an “egregious breach” of EU sanctions in Myanmar, Myanmar Now writes.
The so-called Lawful Interception system is made by a German firm called Utimaco and their systems are designed to help telecoms firms 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, e-mails… file transfers, and other Internet services.”
Telenor’s sale has been widely criticized and some claim illegal and by selling to a junta-linked company it will in short mean that the system will allow the military to spy on millions of users in the country, Myanmar Now writes.
A Telenor staff member who wishes to stay anonymous has said to Myanmar Now that Utimaco’s system is a system not only Telenor but all other operators in Myanmar had to install a while back.
“The intercept system was installed at Telenor Myanmar a few years ago. But it’s not just Telenor. All other operators in Myanmar had to install it as well,” the staff member told Myanmar Now.
“I am not sure whether other operators have given the authorities access to the intercept system but Telenor did not because there is no relevant law for us to do so,” the staff member added.
Myanmar Now has seen documents leaked to the activist group Justice For Myanmar which shows that Telenor installed the system in May 2018 after buying it from Huawei in February that same year.
Myanmar Now writes that just weeks before Telenor installed the system, the April 2018 EU regulation, implemented under Norway’s Sanctions Act, banned the provision of “telecommunication or internet monitoring or interception services of any kind” to Myanmar’s government, whether directly or indirectly.
Justice For Myanmar spokesperson Yadanar Maung argues that Telenor has violated the new ban by installing the system even though the company bought the system before the sanctions were passed.
“This egregious breach of EU sanctions must be investigated by the Norwegian and German governments,” she said.
Moreover, Myanmar Now writes that the Utimaco system was integrated into the military-run Ministry of Home Affairs’ monitoring center in 2020, with a fiber optic cable linking the ministry to the system. According to Telenor however, the Ministry which oversees both the police and its spy agency, Special Branch, was not granted access to customers’ communications via the system; it was merely a legal requirement to have the infrastructure installed so that authorities could request access if needed.
When asked for comments, Telenor spokesperson Cathrine Stang Lund neither confirmed nor denied that the company will transfer a Utimaco surveillance system to M1 Group as part of the sale. “The company is exiting Myanmar precisely because of concerns about surveillance,” she said to Myanmar Now.