The interception of phone calls and texts have been but speculative wonderings in the past but The Reporter has been reliably informed that eavesdropping spyware is now a reality.
Prepaid cell phone users were informed several weeks ago that they would need to be registered with their service provider - Belize Telemedia Limited or Smart Speednet.
What they were not told is that all calls, voice mails and text messages would be intercepted and stored for a period of two years. All this is a directive of the government, through the Ministry of Communication.
According to our sources who wished to remain anonymous, voice calls would be recorded electronically, and the Police will have the task of managing the database.
The undertaking is massive, as special equipment and software is already in place to facilitate the project.
The Reporter was unable to verify exactly when the Government of Belize hired the Israeli company Neptune Intelligence Computer Engineering (NICE) to provide the interception network but did verify that the company was founded in 1987 by seven Israeli ex-army officers.
For several months now, government officials have been holding a series of confidential meetings with technical experts from the telephone companies.
In 2005, the Ministry of Home Affairs and Public Utilities under the PUP administration wanted to do the same thing - register all prepaid cellular phones and record calls. But BTL refused to go along with the plan, and the project was abandoned.
The Reporter obtained a copy of BTL’s 2005 response to the idea of registering prepaid cell phones, in which the company told the government that it would be an illegal undertaking.
“... the memorandum appears to endorse the view that the name and address of an individual with a given telephone number will be accessible by law enforcement authorities as a routine matter.
“The Belize Telecommunication Act 2002 suggests otherwise, and BTL draws Government’s attention, in particular, to Section 44 (4) of the Act which states that any personal information of a subscriber shall be confidential and shall not be disseminated or used without the subscriber’s consent or a court order under this Act or any other law.”
The Act has not changed since then.
Minister of Public Utilities, Broadcasting and Information, Hon. Elvin Penner, denied giving the directive to intercept and store telephone communications when The Reporter spoke with him Thursday afternoon.
Penner claimed the initiative to register cell phones came from the Ministry of Police and Public Safety in order to fight crime.
Even though Penner denied that government is moving in the direction of telephone interception and storage, he pointed out, “If the phone call is not recorded, it won’t help the police.”
Penner also disclosed that the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) presently has the capability for interception of telephone conversations. But he said that he does not know if this is being done. According to Penner, the PUC has invested more than a million dollars in a piece of equipment that is to be used to track television and radio signals.
When asked why the government is using a section of the Telecommunications Act to justify mandatory registration of prepaid cell phones, Penner said that he had not read the law, because he is not a legal minded person.
Which begs several questions.
Can the registration of all prepaid cellular phones and the storage of all forms of telephone communication deter crime in a significant way?
Would the use of the Telecommunication Act of 2002 not render the storage of such information an illegal act?
And how would evidence that has been illegally gathered assist the courts in securing convictions?
What happens to the recorded information after the two-year period?
And most importantly, who will monitor the process to ensure that people’s privacy will not be violated at whim? The Reporter