High-Tech Phone Tapping

As the Turkmen authorities make plans to expand the mobile phone network, users say they fear it remains all too easy to listen in on their conversations.

On May 13, President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov met Leonid Melamed, president of the Russia firm Mobile TeleSystems, MTS. Melamed said his firm was ready to provide Turkmenistan with the latest communications technology, including high-speed internet access.

Official statistics show that Turkmenistan has 530,000 cellphone subscribers out of a population of five million. Eighty per cent of them use the MTS network, and the rest the state-owned Altyn Asyr/TM Cell.

MTS is more expensive than Altyn Asyr, which does not offer roaming services and takes more time to connect up new subscribers – sometimes a year.

The Russian company now wants to invest about 150 million US dollars to increase its subscriber base to one million.

NBCentralAsia observers say mobile phones are still a luxury item in Turkmenistan. Not only are they expensive, but the standard of connections is poor.

However, what worries many phone users most is that the security services are listening in to their calls.

"To discuss everything by phone or my SMS messages is unwise, to say the least," said one local media-watcher.

Analysts suspect that the authorities tap the mobiles of dissident journalists, civil activists, and people who travel abroad or have close relatives in other countries.

One resident of Dashoguz region in the north of Turkmenistan recalled what happened when she criticised the authorities on in a private phone call, "I called my daughter in Russia and spoke angrily about the sharp increase in air ticket prices – the connection suddenly broke off and the phone was blocked temporarily."

A source in the security services said it was best not to discuss political matters over the phone, adding that modern technology allows mobile phones to be used as a bugging device even when calls are not being made.

An observer in Ashgabat thinks people are right to be worried, adding, "The authorities have no plans to get rid of the special listening equipment that was purchased for millions of dollars under the previous president [Saparmurat] Niyazov."

(NBCA is an IWPR-funded project to create a multilingual news analysis and comment service for Central Asia, drawing on the expertise of a broad range of political observers across the region. The project ran from August 2006 to September 2007, covering all five regional states. With new funding, the service is resuming, covering only Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan for the moment.)

Source: Institute for War & Peace Reporting

Source: IWPR