Bangladeshi Surveillance Big Brother Made in Germany

The Munich firm Trovicor wants to help upgrade Bangladesh’s surveillance capabilities, but the plan might run foul of German regulations for the export of spying technology.
They know what you're up to, thanks to Trovicor.

Trovicor is among Germany’s most secretive companies. The Munich-based firm provides sensitive eavesdropping technology, and its business model has repeatedly drawn criticism from human rights organizations. Trovicor emerged from the then-Nokia Siemens Networks, which once provided Iran with this sort of spying equipment.

According to information provided to Handelsblatt, Trovicor is on the verge of sealing another controversial deal. An official at Bangladesh’s intelligence headquarters said Trovicor has been contracted to improve the south-Asian nation’s surveillance capabilities. The official said he expected the upgrade to happen in the next two months.

The head of the Bangladeshi mobile telephone association, Nurul Kabir, as well as an employee of the country’s telephone supervisory authority, both confirmed that Trovicor was slated to improve the country’s eavesdropping technology.

The German company would thereby enable the Bangladeshi government to pursue its political opponents more effectively.

In recent months, hundreds of opposition members have been arrested and dozens killed. In February, the European Commission expressed concern about political kidnappings as well as executions without trials. The non-governmental organization Freedom House said surveillance measures are conducted arbitrarily and without restraint.

The regulations must be brought further up to date, so that this sort of export is not legal. Edin Omanovic, Activist, Privacy International

Human rights organizations and opposition politicians are demanding that the German government prevent the export in accordance with the measures Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel announced last year. “If the company Trovicor is allowed to optimize the surveillance systems of Bangladesh, Mr. Gabriel’s words would prove to be worthless,” said Wenzel Michalsky, head of Human Rights Watch in Germany.

In May, Mr. Gabriel said the German government intended to monitor and regulate the export of spying technology more closely. Powerful information technology from Germany should no longer be transferred to countries in which human rights are violated, he said, and named Turkey and Russia as examples.

The main Bangladeshi surveillance centre in the capital of Dhaka reportedly uses a Trovicor system already. These so-called monitoring centers have such capabilities as storing, observing and evaluating countrywide telephone calls, text messages and broadband voice service. The headquarters is controlled by the ministry for domestic security and has contact with the military secret service.

The upgrade would likely greatly expand the capabilities of the security services. In a letter obtained by Handelsblatt, the Ministry for Domestic Security told Bangladesh’s tax authority that its technology was outdated and must become capable of monitoring social media.

It is unclear what specific services Trovicor is to provide in the upgrade. As a rule, the company delivers the brains of these sorts of surveillance centers, according to the human rights organization Privacy International. Trovicor designs a complete security solution, which includes hardware components of other firms, and frequently acts as project manager, said PI activist Edin Omanovic.

Trovicor offered no comment concerning information about the upgrade order. The company stated that, on principle, it doesn't speak about its clients. The firm said it checked each export for possible authorization requirements and submits appropriate applications.

The German economy ministry said it hasn’t received any application from Trovicor for exports to Bangladesh. However, the ministry said Trovicor “has been informed for a long time about the sensitivity of its field of commercial operations.”

Experts say Trovicor's upgrading of Bangladeshi surveillance capabilities would require authorization. “There is a pressing need for action so that these circumstances can be brought to light,” said Ben Wagner, director of the Center for the Internet and Human Rights at the Viadrina European University in Frankfurt an der Oder, Germany. He pointed out that since the beginning of the year, tightened regulations for the export of surveillance technology have been in place.

Nonetheless, gaps and loopholes make dangerous exports possible, said Mr. Omanovic: “The regulations must be brought further up to date, so that this sort of export is not legal.”


Frederic Spohr is Handelblatt’s Asia correspondent. To contact him: [email protected]