Tajikistan Telecoms Snooping System Hands Government Cash Windfall
In Tajikistan, surveillance pays.
A telecommunications gateway built to snoop on people’s phone calls and internet habits is, according to one estimate, making the government at least $2 million monthly.
Around early 2016, President Emomali Rahmon signed off a decree to create an entity called the Unified Electronic Communications Switching Center, abbreviated as EKTs in Russian. The system was — purportedly in the interests of security — to require all digital data to be filtered through a network gateway run by state-owned telecommunications company Tojiktelecom. The state telecommunications is in turn controlled by the state telecommunications agency, headed by Beg Zukhurov, who is related to President Rahmon by marriage.
Protests that this mechanism would lead to Tojiktelecom’s de facto monopoly control over the industry, in complete violation of obligations before the World Trade Organization, which Tajikistan joined in 2013, were ignored.
EKTs operations proper began in November. As news website Asia-Plus has reported, from January 1, all mobile service operators in Tajikistan have had to pay 15 dirhams ($0.02) into the system for every minute of incoming and and outgoing international calls. That was an increase of the 11 dirham fee previously levied — a hike that the anti-monopoly agency explained as being necessitated by the shrinking number of international calls.
“Until now, the duration of incoming and outgoing international calls in Tajikistan was around 158 million minutes monthly. In December, the duration of calls fell to 112 million minutes,” a source in the anti-monopoly agency told Asia-Plus. That drop prompted Tojiktelecom to plead with the anti-monopoly agency to act, according to the website’s source.
It is hardly surprising that international calls should be on the wane given how the same antimonopoly agency has forced mobile phone service providers to ramp up tariffs for calls to Russia — for reasons that are less than obvious.
Doing some back of a back-of-an-envelope calculations, Asia-Plus arrived at the conclusion that the EKTs is making the Tojiktelecom some $2.1 million monthly.
The anti-monopoly agency has justified its decision by explaining that creating and running the EKTs has been an expensive affair. That is certainly true, except it overlooks the fact that the reported $50 million bill for creating the system in the first place is being handed to the country’s beleaguered mobile service operators.
Next in line are internet service operators, who will also be expected to pay their dues for the privilege of being spied upon.
One enduring mystery is who exactly is running day-to-day operations at the EKTs. Officials have kept their lips sealed on the matter, although sources at telecommunication services providers say the work is being done by a private company owned by a son of Beg Zukhurov, the head of the state communications agency.
Kamila Ibragimova is the pseudonym for a journalist in Tajikistan.