Swedish telcoms giant Teliasonera complicit in mass surveillance in the world's worst dictatorships

The Swedish news show Uppdrag Granskning has posted an hour-long investigative journalism piece establishing the link between the giant Swedish telcoms company Teliasonera and oppressive regimes around the world. Teliasonera sold and supported network equipment that was used to spy on dissidents, journalists, political reformers, union leaders, and the general public in Belarus, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Georgia and Kazakhstan. Here's EFF's writeup of the piece:

The investigative report, titled “Black Boxes,” in reference to the black boxes Teliasonera allowed police and security services to install in their operation centers--which granted them the unrestricted capability to monitor all communications—including Internet traffic, phone calls, location data from cell phones, and text messages—in real-time. This has caused concern among Swedish citizens and Teliasonera shareholders, who had previously been assuaged by assurances from the telecommunications company that they follow the law in the countries in which they are operating. After a meeting with Peter Norman, Sweden’s Minister of Financial Markets, the chairman of Teliasonera’s board of directors issued a statement, announcing that they had launched “an action programme for handling issues related to protection of privacy and freedom of expression in non-democratic countries, in a better and more transparent way.”

Teliasonera’s declaration of good intentions may be too little too late after the damning evidence of abuse compiled by Uppdrag Granskning. Documents obtained by their investigators showed an Azerbaijani had his phone tapped after he published a piece about being beaten at the hands of government security agents while covering a story. The report also found that black-box surveillance was used in Belarus to track down, arrest, and prosecute protesters who attended an anti-government protest rally following the 2010 Belarusian presidential election. One Azerbaijani citizen says he was interrogated solely due to the fact that he voted for the Armenian representative in the 2009 Eurovision song contest.

Swedish Telcom Giant Teliasonera Caught Helping Authoritarian Regimes Spy on Their Citizens


  1. Little boxes in the network
    Little boxes made of mystery
    Little boxes by the server
    Little boxes see your name
    There’s a black one and a black one
    And a black one and a darker one
    And they’re all made out of circuit boards
    And they all look at what you say

  2. not a real surprise, the price of doing business in those countries. the real shock is the outrage shown by the swedish government. as we speak, sweden is using the same tech to do the same surveillance on all of its citizens.

    first, the fra law, which mandates army signal intel intercept and store all cross border communications. data (header and content layers) and telephony. then, eu data retention law, requires all isp to log all user data for 1 year. law enforcement has been just itching to get their hands on all this “unused” data since these laws were passed.

    well it didn’t take too long for the government to pass a new law allowing police to access the data held by ISPs, in the process, lowering the bar as to the severity of the suspected crime. before, police had to go before a judge to ask for a warrant and the suspected crime had to be severe enough to carry a prison term. now the offense just needs to be severe enough to carry a fine (you pay a fine for jaywalking). to top it off, now a judge isn’t always required to access given data. sometimes, a prosecutor can give the go ahead. yea, a prosecutor.

    already written and soon to be voted upon is another law giving police access to the fra database. remember this one contains all cross border traffic and contains the packet content layers. meaning they can see everything.

    if you ask me, the government of sweden is a bunch of FN hypocrites. they had to know on some level that telia did these things and i bet they asked them for help to build there own surveillance machine.

    i don’t even think the U.K. has worse privacy laws than sweden. it all has happened in the last few years as well. downhill soooooo fast. take a look world, your gonna be here soon.

    1. Let’s not let hypocrisy get in the way of doing a little good. Sweden’s distressing internal policies doesn’t mean that its citizenry or its government can’t get pissed when their corporations aid totalitarian regimes in doing nasty things.

      Hypocrisy doesn’t show that an ideal is bad, it just shows that you suck at living up to it. You can be both a hypocrite and correct. Doing something shitty and not being hypocritical about is NOT an superior moral position to do something shitty and being a hypocrite about it.
      Does Sweden spy on its citizens? Sure. Can Sweden be pissed that their corporations are helping toltalitarian regimes spy their citizens despite this? Hell yes. I’ll take a government that acts out against injustice even as they are being douche bags to their own citizenry over when that is just shitty to their citizenry. The one that speaks out even while acting like a dick at least recognizes to some degree that they are doing something wrong and there is hope that they can be changed.

      I’ll take a hypocrite that is truly fighting the good fight against injustice over someone who is unjust as a rule and isn’t a hypocrite about it.

  3. I have a feeling every major telecom does this. Any outrage seems to be only from politicians that “had no idea” when it once in a while makes the headlines. I seem to remember a similar case about a year ago, when some telco or other had delivered surveillance equipment to Iran.

    1. a feeling? what rigorous research you conduct. 
      As mentioned in the film, any company operating in these countries is subject to the same laws.

      1. I should have said “i suspect”. But no, I haven’t done a lot of rigorous research, since my access to either the  internal documents of major telcos or the practices of oppressive regimes is pretty limited. But my suspcion doesn’t limit itself to the countries mentioned.

    2. This is not at all limited to foreign regimes.  In the early 2000s, I was told by a senior phone company troubleshooter that the FBI had a staffed secret intercept room at one of the main Bell South central offices in Atlanta, in which they had total access and no company supervision. I believe this is separate from the NSA intercept scandal which came out much later, was automated and didn’t use on-site staff. I also know that they (someone company approved, outside the usual maintenance and administration groups) were doing deep-packet inspection on all DSL traffic and even changing customer payload data that was going across the DSL network before it reached the ISPs. This was using the Lucent BSN5000 ATM switches. The changing of data using secret rules made certain problems impossible for phone company technicians to fix.

      1. And that brings to mind the claim of “surveillance equipment”. I guess it could be a similar case to nuclear reactor parts. A pump here, a turbine there, it all looks perfectly legit until it is all hooked up in the same building.

        A packet sniffer like wireshark can be used as a diagnostics tool, or as a tool of surveillance. And i suspect it is the same with this gear.

    3.  I have more than a feeling.  I used to work for the now-defunct Canadian telecom supplier, Nortel.  We were making the training videos for an update to the “switch” software explaining the new features.  Word came in one day to drop a section of the video because “those features aren’t legal in the U.S.”

      The features (enabling  unannounced “supervisor” monitoring of any call going through the switch) weren’t being removed from the software, they just wouldn’t be “rolled out” in the U.S.  At the same time Nortel was furiously pursuing contracts to sell their equipment to China among other places.

      I’m sure their potential clients made clear what features the switches would need to have to be acceptable and I’m sure the telecoms eagerly inserted those features to help make the sale.

      1.  As the saying goes, a true capitalist will sell the mob the rope they hang him with.

        Or for a real life example, consider Hiram Maxim. He either directly, or thru licensing, sold his machinegun to just about every army involved in WW1.

  4. I remember when we used to have journalists too.  Those Swedish are so rooted in quaint notions of investigation and exposes.  When will they join the 21st century and pit binary positions into shouting matches about complex issues at regularly scheduled times?

    Investigative journalism is so mid-20th century.

    1. I’d make some rational, intelligent commentary rebutting your thesis while respecting your right to enter into this modest exposition of ideas, but accusing you of being a prostitute is what all the cools kids are doing….

  5. “who had previously been assuaged by assurances from the telecommunications company that they follow the law in the countries in which they are operating ”

    Yeah, what “the law” allows the government to do is always acceptable, everywhere. You can throw away conscience and all ethical considerations because you are “law-abiding”. The law is above all criticism. D-A-M-N. How hypocritical can it be, to feign these levels of cluelessness?

  6. the Norwegian equivalent Telenor has also interrest in Belaruz (30% markedshare) and huge interests in russia, ukrane, pakistan and bangladesh. I remember that during the orange-revolution  a friend, that worked at telenor, of mine showed me the internal strategic discussionboards, the strategist there was panicing and speaking against the revolution because they where afraid the alliances with the regimes would cause a financial loss.  Recently Telenor lost their license in India due to bribes. 

  7. That long rant you deleted raised valid issues. Yeah, she could have phrased it differently but still, fully legitimate either way. Real shame it’s gone.

    I think many people in the EU/US could use somebody who holds a mirror in front of them every once in a while.

  8. Here’s the market leader in Black Boxes:

    they’ve changed their wording quite a bit lately. now it’s all about terrorists and such.

    even here in denmark this kind of equipment is standard, lawful interception is only as good as our laws. and they’re not getting any better, not even in catching ‘criminals and terrorists’

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