The Georgian government's extensive use of illegal and pirated software poses a national security risk that remains uncorrected, technology specialists say.
Georgia's vulnerabilities were fully exposed during the country's 2008 clash with Russia, as several Georgian government networks experienced sustained and damaging cyber-attacks. Although the government has launched a campaign to install legal software and close security gaps, the initiative is still in the early stage of implementation.
A May 2009 study of 115 countries by American software manufacturer groups Business Software Alliance and IDC Global Software cited Georgia as the world's largest user of pirated software. Its ranking -- a 95 percent piracy rate for all software used -- surpasses neighboring Armenia (92 percent) and Azerbaijan (90 percent), as well as Black Sea neighbor Ukraine (84 percent).
The ranking depends in part on the availability of pirated software within a country. The report's authors did not respond to requests for comment on their findings.
Software piracy in Georgia is pervasive both in the public and private sectors. Roughly 70 percent of the 30,000 personal computers used in major government ministries and agencies, as well as by municipal governments, operate with pirated or unlicensed software, said Irakli Gvenetadze, who is heading a special commission at the Ministry of Justice. The commission is charged with coordinating a strategy for legalizing the Georgian government's software programs.
The use of such software makes the government more vulnerable to deliberate cyber-attacks, as well as viruses and malware ("malicious software") that can enter a computer's operating system without its user's consent. Russia is one of the world's largest suppliers of pirated software, according to security specialists and software providers.
Gvenetadze underlined that the Georgian government is aware of its vulnerability, but indicated that efforts to rectify existing problems will take time. The government is currently negotiating with Mircrosoft to purchase legal operating systems, and will be in contact with other software manufacturers, he said.
Use of fraudulent software generally poses a "big security risk," commented Scott Borg, the director and chief economist for the United States Cyber Consequences Unit (USCCU), a non-profit research institute that issued a detailed report about the cyber attack Georgia suffered during its 2008 war with Russia.
Over a dozen Georgian sites were compromised during the attack, including that of the National Bank of Georgia, along with other government sites, the report found.
While the USCCU did not examine the role of pirated software in the attack, its researchers detected that "many Georgian systems are not secure," Borg said. "In some cases, the system was using the default passwords; systems that shouldn't have been," he said.
The Ministry of Justice's Gvenetadze stressed that while the security issue is "important," it is not the only reason the government is tackling its own use of illegal or counterfeited software. Georgia is a member of the World Trade Organization, which requires members to enforce intellectual property rights. "The government does not want to have illegal software," he said.
Gvenetadze placed part of the blame on software companies for Georgia's widespread use of pirated programs and operating systems. "You cannot find any shop where you can find legalized Microsoft software and go and buy it," he claimed. "If you do, the asking price is very crazy -- not compared to real prices and you have to wait two or three months for it to come to you. And the support is nonexistent."
The owner of one Georgian software company took issue with that contention. "You can buy everything [necessary for licensed operating systems], if you have the will," said Giorgi Chirakadze, the owner of United Global Technologies, which has developed a Georgian-language version of the Windows operating system. United Global Technologies has about $2 million in annual software sales to large businesses and some government agencies, he said.
A retail computer store chain operated in Tbilisi by United Global Technologies offers the Microsoft Windows XP Professional for $189, not including an 18-percent Value-Added Tax. By contrast, pirated Microsoft operating systems and Windows-compatible programs - normally in Russian - can be had for as little as 10 lari ($5.79).
Microsoft's representative in Georgia, Zurab Mujanishvili, estimates that his company is losing around $50 million per year in potential sales to Georgia-based businesses thanks to pirated software.
Inadequate enforcement of existing laws poses the primary challenge for protecting intellectual property rights in Georgia, said Eric Schwartz, a Washington, DC-based lawyer specializing in copyright issues in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. He does much of his work for the International Intelligent Property Alliance, a coalition of major American industry groups, such as the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America and the Business Software Alliance.
Georgian customs officials and police do not have the right to pursue a criminal or civil case against suspected violators without the copyright holder first filing suit, Schwartz noted.
Georgia's willingness to strive to meet international standards offers a positive example in a region that still largely lacks strong copyright protection, he suggested. Despite the rampant piracy of copyrighted material in Georgia, Tbilisi is not at risk of losing its preferred trading status with the United States, Schwartz added. Georgia is the staunchest supporter of the US and EU political and economic agenda in the Caucasus.
Ultimately, commented Microsoft's Mujanishvili, Georgia's widespread use of pirated software only hurts itself. "Software is a live organism" that constantly needs new security patches and updates to function properly, he said.
"[People ask] 'Why must I pay money?'" Mujanishvili recounted. "I say, 'You must pay money because when you don't [protect] other people's property, no one will [protect] yours.'"
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.