BEIRUT: A tour organized by Parliament’s Information and Telecommunications Committee of the country’s centralized wiretap facility Tuesday highlighted glaring flaws in the process meant to protect civil liberties from government abuse. Sources who took part in the tour spoke about a “jarring exchange” and told The Daily Star that Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said he had made no request for data from the center. But Telecommunication Minister Nicholas Sehnaoui, the sources added, replied that he receives daily information requests from the Interior Ministry with Charbel’s written approval. Charbel turned to one of his officers and asked: “What data are you asking for?”
The country’s new wiretapping facility was inaugurated last November with much fanfare from government officials. They heralded it as a centralizing step to rein in the country’s security services’ sprawling phone monitoring operations by forcing them to comply with the law.
Charbel laid out the new centralized wiretapping process which was supposed to emphasize accountability and government oversight of wiretap operations. Obtaining permission for any wiretap operations requires a lengthy chain of governmental approval, including the signatures of the prime minister and several ministries.
According to the process, Charbel should have been aware of all requests for wiretapping data that get approval.
Head of Parliament’s Information and Telecommunications Committee MP Hasan Fadlallah said he was working with the center and MPs to ensure that the wiretapping facility has the technology and capacity to carry out its missions, but also has the proper administrative checks to make sure privacy rights are respected.
“What is of interest to us in this matter is to confirm the importance of the center fully carrying out its mission according to limits set by the laws that protect the freedom of Lebanese and their privacy,” Fadlallah said. “We don’t want the Lebanese to have to choose between freedom and security. We want them to have both together and we can have both together.”
But if Charbel was unaware that his ministry was requesting wiretap permission, it suggests that the new system of checks could be more rubberstamping than meaningful oversight.
Still, officials have said that the center is only the first move to introduce a sophisticated wiretapping facility that can protect the nation. They say technology upgrades and improvements in the process are still required and MPs will likely craft new laws.
Sehnaoui said his ministry will compile a report on the new facility with requests for improvements and submit it to the Cabinet. It’s predicted that the improvements will take seven months to implement.
Handling those requests and the functioning of the center has proved divisive in parliament.
There are many more reforms that still need to be made as the new centralized facility is not yet legally the sole location for wiretap operations.
Some MPs say there are still ongoing unsupervised operations and are proposing a reform to fully control the practice and protect people’s privacy. According to parliamentary sources, a number of MPs have agreed to further organize the process of wiretapping data collection. And MPs have been critical of the Telecommunications Ministry’s recent response to requests for information on plans to assassinate government officials.
Finding the balance of sharing and oversight will take time, officials say. “The law is what sets the balance,” Fadlallah said.