The Swedish-Finnish telecom giant earns huge sums from deals with dictatorships in the former Soviet Union, but the contracts are often signed on the condition that the countries’ security services be granted access to their systems in order to facilitate spying on individuals.
In Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Uzbekistan, for example, there is a system called Sorm which is connected to TeliaSonera’s network and which allows authorities complete access to the countries’ telecom system, Svergies Television (SVT) investigative journalism programme “Uppdrag granskning” has shown.
The system allows security services direct access to subscribers’ telephone calls, data, and text messages, resulting in wiretaps which have led to the arrest of members of the political opposition.
In one instance, a man in Azerbaijan was called in to an interrogation by the country’s security service after having voted for Armenia in the finals of the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest.
TeliaSonera spokesperson Cecilia Edström told SVT that “police authorities have the right to access information from the net in order to fight crime.”
“The laws in the countries go to different lengths in terms of the powers they grand police authorities to fight crime,” she said.
Foreign minister Carl Bildt, who on Thursday opened a conference in Stockholm examining internet freedom, refused to comment on what responsibility Swedish telecom companies have when dealing with dictators.
According to Bildt, good communications are important for democracy.
“In general, I think that it’s good that we participate in developing telecommunications in different countries. Having a working mobile phone system in Belarus is better for the opposition than for the regime,” he told the Dagens Nyheter (DN) newspaper.
TeliaSonera, meanwhile, pointed out that different countries have different laws when it comes to tapping private communications of their citizens.
“In all countries, including Sweden, security services have the right, under certain circumstances related to fighting and preventing crime, to set up wiretaps and access traffic on the network. That’s controlled by national legislation and we need to follow the laws of the countries we’re in,” company spokesperson Thomas Jönsson told the TT news agency.
“These are tough issues and nothing we take lightly. But as a lone telecom operator we can’t do much.”
However, insurance company Folksam, one of TeliaSonera’s owners, was surprised by the report, which is set to broadcast in Sweden on Wednesday night.
“It’s a little shocking that they house the security services in their own offices,” Folksam’s Carina Lundberg Markow told TT.
Martin Uggla, chair of the human rights organization Östgruppen för demokrati och mänskliga rättigheter (‘The East group for democracy and human rights’), called the revelations about TeliaSonera’s actions in the region “remarkable and scandalous”.
“The information that has come out shows that TeliaSonera’s claims that they act in an ethically acceptable manner aren’t true,” he said.
On Wednesday, Sweden’s financial markets minister Peter Norman, who handles the government’s management of state-owned companies, spoke with TeliaSonera chair Anders Narvinger and demanded he come to the ministry to explain what was revealed in the SVT report.
The Swedish government is the largest shareholder in TeliaSonera, owning just over 37 percent of the company’s shares.
According to a government statement, the company will also be required to develop an action plan for how the company plans to address issues related to democracy in companies in which TeliaSonera is a partial owner.