Personal Privacy at Risk under Government

Personal Privacy at Risk under Government

The FINANCIAL -- Mobile phone users who have sold their devices on to new owners or are going to sell them are at risk of potentially sharing their personal information unknowingly with the Government.

Deleted messages, contact information, photo and video files can be recovered by Levan Samkharauli National Forensics Bureau without their needing ownership verification documents, for just GEL 60 per file, an agency representative told The FINANCIAL.

While personal privacy is at risk in Georgia the mobile operator companies, Geocell, Magti and Beeline, say they have no responsibility to protect their customers from a service which is not provided by them.

The Georgian National Communication Commission explains how it investigates and controls cases where the providers of electronic communications service breach legislative provisions on the protection of consumers’ rights. “In this case the problem is between the consumers and the mobile phone producers. Such problems are regulated by the Personal Data Protection Inspector,” said Khatia Kurashvili, of GNCC.

The law on Personal Data Protection adopted by the previous Parliament in December 2011 regulates the rule on the gathering and usage of personal data. It permits the state to get personal information for safety reasons, mainly with permission from the owner. The law does not explain situations where one collects data from devices previously owned by another person.

The Personal Data Protection Inspector Tamar Kaldani declined to comment for the reason that she was not aware of this case and needs time to properly investigate how consumer rights have been abused.

Meanwile, Levan Samkharauli National Forensics Bureau gets 50 mobile phones per month for the purpose of restoring different kinds of information, out of which the most highly-demanded services are SMS, contact information and call history recovery, according to the statistics. 25 percent of mobile phones are checked for investigative purposes.

“It is not our responsibility to find out how a customer got the mobile phone, it is the customer’s responsibility,” said Roland Makhmudov, Head of the Informative Technologies and Computer Examination Department. “If a mobile phone does not have any password code we do not start investigating whether the customer is its owner or not. Again, it is not our responsibility. We cannot determine whether this information is his/her private information or someone else’s. How the customer got the mobile phone is not our business. We are committed to our customers - we must do whatever they ask. It is their order. If a phone has a password code and the customer does not know it then in that case we require a judge’s verdict that the phone legally belongs to that customer and that he/she has simply forgotten the password,” he added.

Makhmudov explains that each person should take care of their own personal privacy by themselves. “For this it is enough to simply block mobile phones and use passwords. It is good to do that in case someone steals your mobile phone or you lose it. But before selling a mobile phone on people should bring it in to our bureau as we can delete all kinds of information in a way that means its restoration is impossible. This service is available at our bureau at a cost of GEL 100 per mobile phone,” said Makhmudov.

It is not only the restoring of deleted information that is available now. Even if one person uses another’s mobile phone to sign into Skype, Facebook, their email or other devices, it is also possible to restore all the conversations which they might have had during this time, Makhmudov told The FINANCIAL.

“This service is mostly needed for investigations, when there is concern that there was contact between a victim and suspect and what the content of this contact was. Investigators often bring mobile phones from prison to find a clue in a criminal case. If a person dies in uncertain circumstances investigators often search for whether they talked to or texted someone and whether there is a clue to find there. The investigators bring a special warrant and we start working only after that. Sometimes we are able to provide the investigators with such information that radically changes the investigation process. From the very beginning the idea to bring this service to Georgia came about because of high demand from the Investigation Department,” said Makhmudov.

Smartphones take first position among the most-frequently checked mobile phones, followed by Chinese and old generation mobile phones.

It is possible to extract and restore information from 90 percent of mobile phone models, which is 3,400 mobile phones which exist on the market nowadays. Restoring 1 SMS costs GEL 60 and restoring contact information - GEL 100. In terms of photo restoration, it costs GEL 60 as well any extra 1 GB - GEL 100. “There is one offer - that after restoring 10 messages each additional message will cost only GEL 15. The tariffs are regulated by the state, not by us,” said Makhmudov.

Universal Forensic Evidence Device is equipment for restoring data and is available only for expert institutions and not for private entities or private organizations. In Georgia Levan Samkharauli National Forensics Bureau is the only owner of this equipment and accordingly only we provide such kind of service. USD 150,000 was spent on this equipment which was brought from the USA.

“So as not to damage the information in the mobile phone, we get a clone of it and create a virtual mobile phone and it is exactly this clone that we are working on. We do not touch the information which is in the mother mobile phone. The difficulty depends on the hard drive of the mobile phone. For example if we compare iPhone and Sumsung to each other, we will see that they have a different structure of saving information. Sumsung can use its internal memory as well as external memory card as opposed to iPhone. This means that it is easier to work on Sumsung than iPhone,” he added.

Chinex is new equipment which was recently brought to the Bureau and is designed for Chinese mobile phones. It was previously impossible to restore information from Chinese mobile phones. “Demand for restoring information from such mobile phones was so high though that we decided to purchase this equipment. About 30 percent of the market is made up by Chinese mobile phones,” Makhmudov said.

Nowadays Levan Samkharauli National Forensics Bureau offers 10 services but from January 2014 it will add 15 more services, including GPC coordinates to get information about where photos were taken.

Levan Samkharauli National Forensics Bureau represents a LEPL providing Georgian and foreign physical and legal entities with forensic services. It is the only independent forensic laboratory in all Georgia.

The Bureau provides its services to state structures as well as to private ones, budgetary organizations, commercial and non-commercial establishments and physical persons.

In September 2013, 110 CDs with 144 private video recordings were destroyed by special shredder equipment at the Moduli building. The move was demanded by international and non-governmental organizations, accusing the previous government of blackmail and illegal spy recordings, which according to some reports consisted of materials from the private lives of journalists and politicians. The new government promised to increase personal data security and restrict spy recordings. It also said the issue of the role of mobile operators in spy recordings will be investigated.

The Independent Association of Georgian Journalists, which developed digital security recommendations for journalists in 2012, said that the new service offered by the National Forensics Bureau puts personal security at risk. Data collected from mobile phones can be used against their owners, by the state or by other groups, IAGJ said. The organization recommended that journalists increase security measures by setting up strong passwords on devices. Journalists must refrain from selling their devices to secondary owners, the IAGJ said. It also addressed the Government on strict service rules by requiring official permission from personal data owners on data extraction.