Georgia’s parliament overrides presidential veto of surveillance bill

23 March 2017
“Hear our voice, don’t listen in on us” – This Affects You campaign in Tbilisi (OC Media)

Georgia’s parliament overrode President Giorgi Margvelashvili’s veto of a controversial surveillance bill on 22 March. The bill has faced criticism for not making core changes to the previous surveillance legislation, which gives state security agencies easy access to citizens’ personal information.

Margvelashvili vetoed the new surveillance bill on 20 March, following its adoption by parliament on 1 March. The president added his remarks to the bill before sending it back to parliament. According to the Georgia’s Public Broadcaster, parliament’s Legal Issues Committee said that now was not the time for ‘practicing experiments in security’, and overrode the veto by 83 votes to 20.

Georgia’s highest court, the Constitutional Court, struck down the country’s surveillance laws in April 2016 as unconstitutional. Since then, a ‘two-key system’ for control of surveillance was in force, meaning that agencies must seek permission from both the Personal Data Protection Inspector and the courts prior to conducting surveillance.

[Read: Georgia’s perpetual system of illegal surveillance]

The court ruled that official investigative bodies interested in gaining personal information must not be granted unrestrained access to any data, as this represents an excessive threat to privacy.

According to the new bill, a legal entity of public law — the Operative-Technical Agency (OTA) — will be created in the State Security Service of Georgia (SSG). The OTA will control access to hidden surveillance of communications service operators, computer networks, physical surveillance via audio/video recording, photography, and the use of electronic tracking devices. It will also be able to install clandestine applications on suspects’ PCs, and control postal and telegraphic transfers. The OTA will report directly to the Prime Minister.

The changes were met with scepticism from opposition parties and civil society. Leading civil rights groups had tried to make changes to the bill, but their view of the law and understanding of the Constitutional Court’s ruling, was opposed by the government. Parliament’s reluctance to give up their approach led rights groups to walk out of the parliamentary working group on the bill in early February.

As an alternative, rights groups had suggested a new, completely independent, and separate agency, accountable to parliament, the Personal Data Protection Inspector, and the courts. According to the Georgian Young Lawyer’s Association, a civil rights group who worked on the bill in the early stages of its development, a similar body was originally suggested in the decision of the Constitutional Court itself. However, parliament rejected the initiative.

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