Under surveillance: Public perceptions of safety while talking on the phone in Georgia

Illegal government surveillance is an issue which has been intensely debated in recent years in Georgia. Surveillance related legislation was adopted in 2010 and allowed law enforcement agencies to have unlimited access to telecommunication servers and hence to monitor everyone’s phone conversations at any time. Before 2012 Parliamentary elections, this legislation was criticized by the Georgian Dream Coalition (GDC) and was expected to be significantly altered after GDC came to power in 2012. This, however, did not happen, and the new surveillance law passed in 2014 did not change the situation much, allowing the Ministry of Internal Affairs to maintain direct and unlimited access to surveillance equipment.
A survey commissioned by Transparency International – Georgia (TIG) and conducted by CRRC-Georgia in 2013 included a number of questions about Georgians’ perceptions of privacy while talking on the phone. This blog post presents the results of this survey and shows that the majority of Georgians report restraining from sharing critical opinions about the government while talking on the phone, while a quarter of Georgia’s population believes that the government listens to everyone.
When asked, “In Georgia today, do you think or not that people like yourself have the right to openly say what they think?” 76% of Georgians answered “yes,” according to CRRC’s Caucasus Barometer survey in 2013. However, when the TIG survey asked, “Would you share a critical opinion about current political events in Georgia with a friend over the phone?” 69% of Georgians answered negatively. Importantly, similar attitudes were recorded when the question was asked about sharing a personal secret with a friend, which demonstrates that Georgians do not feel comfortable or safe talking on the phone, and, generally, do not consider phones a secure means of communication, irrespective of the topic they are discussing.

The results presented in the chart above are hardly surprising, taking into consideration that a quarter of the population reports that they believe the government listens to everyone’s phone conversations, and a further 39% answer “Don’t know” or “Refuse to answer” – an extremely large share, suggesting that people didn’t feel comfortable answering this question.

In addition, 18% of Georgians think that the government monitors his/her internet activities including email, social networks and forums. People agree with the latter statement irrespective of which sector they are employed in – public or private. However, people working in the public sector are almost twice as likely to express uncertainty about whether or not the government listens to everyone.

The data also shows that, in Tbilisi, 28% think that the Georgian government listens to everybody and monitors people’s internet activities, while this share is smaller in other urban settlements.

The data discussed in this blog post tells us more than just about Georgians’ perceptions of illegal surveillance. These perceptions are important as they can effect civic engagement significantly. People who think that the government is following their internet activities and listening to their phone conversations are likely to limit discussing politics through the internet and phone, as well as publicly which, in turn, limits public discussion and critical evaluation of current events. Even though this data was collected in 2013, when the new surveillance legislation had not yet passed, how much do we expect public perceptions to have changed since?
The upcoming data from TI Georgia’s 2015 survey, to be available shortly, will show whether these perceptions have changed since 2013. Meanwhile, you can learn more about the 2013 results here.

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