Workers mount a portrait of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina ahead of Awami League's National Council in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP/Rehman Asad
Workers mount a portrait of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina ahead of Awami League's National Council in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP/Rehman Asad

With national elections just months away, Bangladesh’s incumbent Awami League regime is scaling up monitoring and surveillance of the Internet — with a particular focus on social media — to tackle what it calls “increasing cyber-crimes” in the country.

Both the Bangladesh police and its largest division — the Dhaka Metropolitan Police (DMP), which controls law and order in the capital— are sprouting specialized units with the manpower and computer hardware to fight criminals in cyberspace.

This has raised concern about possible threats to people’s privacy and free speech in the run-up to the election, although no specific date for the ballots has been announced.

Meanwhile, the elite force of the police — the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) — is being given the task of monitoring social media, at least for the four months leading up to the elections, and quite possibly thereafter.

Bureaucrats, too, are getting in on the act, assigned as they are with the task of checking and detecting rumors and anti-state propaganda.

The election threatens to be a tough challenge for the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina-led government, with protests and public discontent dominating the run-up to the polls.

A nine-member monitoring cell, comprising officials from the Press Information Department (PID) under the Ministry of Information, will constantly monitor online platforms including Facebook and Twitter. It will send a “detected” rumor or “anti-state” post to the telecom regulator — Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission — for filtering or blocking.

Spruced up police units

With increased penetration of mobile and internet networks across the country, the government in Bangladesh in the last decade has set up various specialized cyber-crime police units.

The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) under the Bangladesh Police has a Cyber-crime Investigation Cell and an IT Forensic Lab.

The Police Bureau of Investigation (PBI), another wing of the Bangladesh Police, has a Cyber Crime Unit, while the Ministry of Home Affairs has merged all the cyber units and set up a centralized body called the Cyber Crime Investigation Bureau (CCIB).

Talking to Asia Times, Mollah Nazrul Islam, a Special Superintendent at the CCIB, said the idea of establishing a new center was taken as the different units faced problems in coordinating their actions.

“A centralized center with state-of-the-art technology is necessary to tackle complex issues like cyber-crimes,” Islam said. “It’s not just about monitoring social media and finding anti-state or anti-government propagandists. Our new center also wants to keep a close eye on potential terrorist threats or breaches in the financial security system.”

The Dhaka police, meanwhile, have transformed their small-scale Cyber Security Department into a larger Social Media Monitoring and Cyber Security Division.

“The recent widespread propagation of rumors and misinformation during the student-led protest for safer roads has made us intensify our monitoring [of] social media,” said Alimuzzaman, the division’s deputy commissioner.

Since April, the country has been gripped by recurring unrest led by the students. In April and May, university students organized multiple protests against government jobs quotas. Then, in August, there was a protest demanding road safety measures, which was sparked by the killing of two high school students by a speeding bus in the capital Dhaka.

Social media played a key role in the organization of both protest movements, while at same time giving rise to a number of rumors, some of them unsubstantiated. The authorities responded with a massive crackdown involving arrests of over 100 people.

New machinery and measures

The spruced up units of both the Bangladesh Police and the Dhaka police are getting new machines and tools to beef up monitoring of the Internet.

According to one CCIB official, they are going to procure machinery that reveals international mobile subscriber identity (IMSI), plus Monitor-Mobile Trackers and a “Back Pack IMSI Monitor-Location Finder”, which will allow them to identify and track devices from a backpack.

The CCIB is also getting open-source intelligence (OSINT) monitors. These are dynamic web intelligence tools that allow users to harness the vast amount of intelligence data available on the web including social media networks, news networks, websites, blogs, and other Internet sources.

A pre-evaluation committee at the Planning Commission cleared a $13.9 million project to fund the Rapid Action Battalion’s purchase of a range of specialist hardware and software to monitor the web. According to a report of Privacy International, RAB has already called for tenders for a “wi-fi interceptor”, a “laser listening device”, and, curiously, an “under-door viewer”.

On June 12, the Bangladesh government cleared a plan to procure equipment worth $28 million for mobile phone, email and social media surveillance for the National Telecommunication Monitoring Center.

Privacy concerns

Mostafa Jabbar, the Minister of the Post, Telecommunication and Information Technology said almost every country is taking serious measures to thwart cyber-crimes.

“Bangladesh has some political challenges which other countries might not have been facing. That’s why it has become necessary to monitor the web space, especially the social media,” he said. “There are threats of terrorism, rumor and propaganda spreading. Besides, the national election is ahead, so there are chances that those will increase. So we need to act accordingly.”

However, a cybersecurity expert who wished to remain anonymous said the government’s step of increasing Internet monitoring is basically a precaution to silence critics and dissenters ahead of the election. Only the government considers “rumor-spreading” or “posting anti-government statements” as “cyber-crimes”, he said.

“I have considerable doubts [about] how effective the law enforcers will be in stopping another large-scale financial cyber-crime like the one that took place in Bangladesh Bank,” he added.