A leading human rights group has called for increased monitoring of Indonesian Military (TNI) surveillance activities after the defense ministry admitted to purchasing sophisticated spying equipment from a company with a history of supplying oppressive regimes.
The Ministry of Defense signed a 4.2 million pound ($6.7 million) deal with the United Kingdom-based Gamma TSE for unspecified “wiretapping” equipment to be used by the TNI’s Strategic Intelligence Agency (Bais) — one of five organizations with surveillance capabilities in Indonesia.
“We will use it only for ‘strategic’ intelligence, not intelligence services related to crimes, bank robberies or other [threats],” Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro said. “We won’t just wiretap anyone we want.”
Defense officials held up the deal as the latest step in a push to modernize the nation’s aging military hardware, but critics in Indonesia and abroad raised concerns on Tuesday over the intended use of advanced spying equipment by the Indonesian military.
Gamma TSE produces a variety of surveillance equipment, from mobile wiretapping vans to monitoring software like FinFisher (FinSpy) — a controversial malware program detected on servers in 36 countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. The company’s products have reportedly turned up in several authoritarian regimes, including Bahrain, Libya and Turkmenistan.
Surveillance software, like FinFisher, was allegedly in-use in the lead-up to this year’s Malaysian national elections, with several political activists targeted in Malay-language phishing attempts by unknown groups. The program can intercept emails, Skype calls and activate a computer’s microphone and webcam for remote monitoring, according to Gamma brochures posted online by WikiLeaks’s SpyFiles.
It is unknown what equipment the TNI purchased from Gamma, but a source familiar with the industry said the sale of the surveillance company’s equipment to military organizations was rare.
But the sale of any advanced spy equipment to Indonesian armed forces caused concern among the nation’s human rights activists.
“I’m afraid there’s not enough mechanisms and self-control to ensure that this technology is not abused,” Andreas Harsono, Indonesia researcher with Human Rights Watch, said. “Indonesia has no third-party intelligence gathering mechanism — be [it] a court or a legislative mechanism — to approve wiretapping. The Gamma equipment is a nightmare.”
The Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) called the defense ministry’s initial silence on the purchase “shameful” and warned of a return to New Order-like military surveillance of rights groups and political activists under the nation’s contested intelligence law.
“The big question is what [the TNI] plans to use [the equipment] for,” Haris Azar, a coordinator with Kontras, said on Tuesday.
Within their rights?
Rights groups lambasted the nation’s updated Intelligence Law when it was passed in 2011, calling the regulation “draconian” in its reach and challenging the law in a failed Constitutional Court appeal. The vague wording of the law allows agencies significant latitude in intelligence gathering aimed at “opponents” of “national stability.”
The House of Representatives argued that the Intelligence Law was necessary for national security, citing terrorism concerns, but activists warned that the law could be used to silence political groups and muzzle the nation’s vibrant and, at times, combative media.
The groups were concerned that the Intelligence Law, and its subsequent use, would herald a return to the harsh crackdowns common under Gen. Suharto’s 32 year rule. More than 1,200 people, mostly political activists, disappeared during the New Order, according to Kontras.
Military officials claim that more than a decade of post-Suharto reforms have laid these fears to rest, but groups like Kontras, Elsham and Imparsial are not lacking reason for pause. In 2006, top military officials referred to the human rights groups as “radicals” in a closed-door security meeting later leaked to the press.
Imparsial was one of the rights groups to file a report against the Indonesian Military over the allegations, stating that the military, in its capacity, should not be investigating Indonesian citizens.
“We went to court to make an appeal to Bais, but they justified that they have the authority to look at the internal threats,” Imparsial program director Al-Araf said. “This is an abuse of power, I think.”
As the nation’s political sphere gears up for Indonesia’s third direct presidential election, the sale of advanced spying hardware to the military set off alarms over its possible use against political opponents. More than a dozen presidential hopefuls have expressed interest in running, including four potential candidates with military ties.
The House commission on defense and information warned the military not to overstep its bounds on Tuesday.
“Commission I of the DPR is warning the TNI not to use the state-of-the-art wiretapping equipment for purposes outside the TNI’s duties and functions, especially not for any political interests ahead of the 2014 elections,” commission head Mahfudz Siddik said.
Deputy chairman Tubagus Hasanuddin said the commission would ensure the technology wasn’t misused.
“The military’s purchase should only be used for defense purposes, not to target civilians,” Tubagus said.
The UK-based surveillance watchdog Privacy International called the defense ministry’s Gamma deal “deeply troubling,” in light of the military’s checkered human rights record and Gamma’s alleged track record of dealing with authoritarian regimes in Bahrain, Egypt and Turkmenistan.
“When you combine these two truths, we have serious concerns that this technology will be abused to violate the rights of the Indonesian people,” said Edin Omanovic, a research officer at Privacy International. “Whether this happens from the outset or down the line as a result of function creep, we cannot say for sure.
“But with the Indonesian presidential elections taking place in six months, the timing and scale of this purchase should be publicly scrutinized as this surveillance technology can easily be used to invade the privacy of peaceful protestors, target political opponents and stifle democratic debate ahead of the elections.”
The 4.2 million pound deal garnered criticism in the UK over the government’s backing of a loan to supply the TNI with monitoring equipment. The bank only conducts studies on three percent of the loans backed by the UK government, according to Tim Jones, a policy officer at the watchdog group Jubilee Debt Campaign.
UK Export Finance declined to conduct an investigation into the possible uses of Gamma spying equipment by the TNI, according to records obtained by the Jakarta Globe.
“The UK government has admitted that it conducted no assessment of the impact on human rights or funding the purchase of this equipment, or the ability of the Indonesian government to repay,” Jones said. “It is appalling that the UK government is backing loans for military spying equipment, without caring how it might be used.”
The sale is relatively insignificant in the world of arms sales. The Ministry of Defense signed a $500 million deal with US planemaker Boeing for the purchase of eight Apache helicopters — a sale that nearly exceeded Indonesia’s current defense debt to UK Export Finance.
Indonesia is currently on the hook for 350 million pounds, much of which was accrued in Suharto-era arms purchases, Jones said. The campaign urged the British government to forgive all debts accrued under the New Order regime.
“Britain has an outrageous record of supporting loans to General Suharto for Hawk aircraft and Scorpion tanks,” Jones said. “These unjust debts should be audited and cancelled, rather than new immoral loans being given.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron announced plans to restart arms sales to Indonesia during a visit with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono last year. The UK government had banned the sale of arms more than a decade ago on reports that BAE-made aircraft were used against civilians in East Timor.
The two nations have since entered into talks for the 2 billion pound purchase of 24 Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft. The sale is still in discussion, Ministry of Defense spokesman Brig. Gen. Sisriadi Iskandar said.
Indonesia has increased its defense spending annually, boosting the budget some 6.6 percent to Rp 77 trillion ($6.6 billion) this year, amid a regional boom in military purchasing.
The nation’s proposed budget is still less than the S$ 12.2 billion ($9.7 billion) spent by Singapore in 2012, but significantly more than the Rp 14.3 trillion Indonesia allocated to defense spending in 2002, according to figures tracked by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Much of the expenditures were to upgrade the nation’s ageing military hardware, a common move after years of robust economic growth, said Craig Caffrey, a senior analyst at IHS Jane’s.
“I think the increases in defense spending we have seen in recent years are motivated largely by modernization requirements following a period of very limited investment in this area prior to 2009,” Caffrey said. “The majority of the procurement programs that have taken place over the last few years were very much focused on replacing aging existing equipment rather than necessarily expanding capability.”
The spending spree is set to continue as Yudhoyono pushed for another increase in the proposed 2014 budget. The Ministry of Defense will spend some Rp 83.4 trillion in 2014, according to IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly.
While the country’s defense ministry is on the record saying the technology will be used only for military matters, observers and rights groups remain skeptical that the TNI is an organization that can be entrusted with this kind of equipment.
“The government should make sure that these tools are not used against the Indonesian people,” Al-Araf said. “But the problem is the Indonesian intelligence has failed to reform.”
— Markus Junianto Sihaloho contributed to this report