(This article is part of our special series ‘Rethinking Bangladesh’. You can read the editorial note to the series here.)
On 12 December 2021, Bangladeshi media highlighted the country’s digital policy achievements to commemorate 13 years to the day since Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina first called for a ‘Digital Bangladesh’. The day was marked with quizzes, paintings and essay competitions, seminars and a prize-giving celebration, with Hasina as a key participant in the proceedings, virtually connecting to the main event at the Bangabandhu International Conference Centre (BICC). Hasina was a fitting chief guest since the extremely visible, highly marketed concept of Digital Bangladesh first materialised as a campaign promise made by the Awami League in the run up to the 2008 general elections. What this concept actually meant in practice, though, was undefined in their election manifesto – and remains somewhat blurry today.
On paper at least, Digital Bangladesh policies fall in line with the approaches encouraged under the global International and Communications Technologies for Development (‘ICT4Development’) agenda, which, broadly speaking, focuses on increasing internet access to allow for economic development, particularly in developing countries. According to a government website, Digital Bangladesh did not just promise efficient government service delivery, but also spoke of ensuring democracy and rights, transparency and accountability through the use of technology. Hasina has evoked the term in speeches slightly differently, saying her vision of Digital Bangladesh meant citizens would have lives free from ‘crime and misrule’ even while facing 21st-century challenges. As Delwar Hussain wrote in 2009, the slogan captured the imagination of many voters, especially first-time voters who made up approximately one-third of the electorate in 2008. The vision of digital Bangladesh had become synonymous with voters’ hopes for a better democracy and more transparency – particularly so after the preceding years of political turmoil, including a state of emergency imposed in 2007, which led to delayed polls and opened the door to military control through a caretaker government.
Yet, in parallel to the much-lauded policies that officially fall under Digital Bangladesh, the government of Bangladesh has instituted an increasingly oppressive set of digital policies and practices, violating the rights of Bangladeshi citizens and migrant populations in the country via internet shutdowns, censorship, and crackdowns on freedom of expression leading to arrests. In between these two extremes lie digital developments such as the planned introduction of digital identification cards, encouraged by major international institutions like the World Bank and Gavi, the vaccine alliance, yet which have already resulted in unethical and privacy-violating impacts on refugees and citizens alike.
Controlling digital infrastructure
During their years in power, the Awami League consolidated their control of digital infrastructure, and is now able to institute internet shutdowns or slowdowns via the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) – such as in the lead up to the 2018 elections, when the BTRC ordered mobile operators to shut down mobile internet services. This strategy has also been used at times of heightened tension: in August 2016, the government tested shutting off the internet to the country after escalating violence, including the murder of 20 hostages at a holdup at a bakery in Dhaka’s Gulshan neighbourhood.
The provision of a legal identity need not necessarily be combined with the collection of invasive biometric data, as has happened in Bangladesh and many other countries.
On occasion, the government has also been known to block social-media platforms. Facebook and Facebook Messenger services were restricted in March 2021 during protests against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit, with police firing on and killing protesters. While the BTRC claimed a technical glitch, the Post and Telecommunications Minister Mustafa Jabbar cited national security as justification for the restrictions. In 2015, the government instituted blocks on Facebook, WhatsApp and Viber for over three weeks, fearing unrest after the Supreme Court upheld death sentences for two opposition leaders convicted of war crime and rape charges.
The Government of Bangladesh has also invested in equipment for surveillance, purchasing spyware to monitor mobile-phone activity from Israeli companies Picsix and Cellebrite, despite Bangladesh not officially recognising Israel as a country due to its occupation of Palestinian land. Yet, as was reported by Al Jazeera, these exchanges did not just involve equipment but also training for Bangladeshi intelligence officers in Hungary and Singapore, often with a ‘middle man’ used to hide the transactions. These targeted surveillance capabilities are in addition to broader-based monitoring of digital activities, including social-media monitoring and mobile-phone activity, which is carried out by the National Telecommunication and Monitoring Centre (NTMC). The NTMC also claims to work with Facebook to shut down accounts reportedly used for ‘militant’ activity, and has claimed to be developing the capability to filter and block ‘anti government propaganda’.
The government’s true commitment to human rights can be seen in the way they’ve treated the data of the most marginalised in the country – specifically, the data of Rohingya refugees.
The Awami League is also not above using legislation in order to control online speech, chiefly through the Digital Security Act (DSA), which was passed in parliament in September 2018. In the first five months of 2020, 403 cases were filed using the DSA and 353 arrests were made – many of them journalists, activists and those critical of the government and its leadership. In July 2020, the research and advocacy nonprofit Human Rights Watch detailed the numerous rights violations that the government has carried out under the DSA, describing its provisions as “vague and overly broad”, and noting that under it, even peaceful speech is criminalised, and harassment and abuse of critics of the government have been permitted.
The pandemic has only led to further arrests for online activity: in May 2020, four people were arrested and seven people charged for their social media posts and cartoons criticising the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Surveillance and the smart ID
More pervasive digital infrastructure has also been established with the introduction of the digital identification ‘smart National ID cards’ (NID) scheme in 2016, which includes the collection of biometric data – specifically, impressions of all ten fingers and images of the iris. In Bangladesh, the introduction of smart ID cards has been seen as a mark of progress by those in power, a step towards a more digitally savvy nation in line with the Digital Bangladesh agenda. And while access to a legal identity is codified as a target that all countries should aim to provide by 2030 under the UN Sustainable Development Goal 16.9, the provision of a legal identity need not necessarily be combined with the collection of invasive biometric data, as has happened in Bangladesh and many other countries. In this case, the ‘legal identity’ has been packaged into an ID card which theoretically provides access to many other services, including private-sector services.
Though the UNHCR is undoubtedly to blame for how the biometric data of the Rohingya was managed and eventually shared with the Government of Myanmar, against the express wishes of many Rohingya themselves, the Bangladesh government’s role cannot be overlooked.
But as 2020 research on ‘Understanding the lived effects of digital ID’ by The Engine Room (where I work) shows, digital identification cards often exclude already marginalised populations, or increase the potential for surveillance, particularly when access to key government services is increasingly reliant upon having one. This, combined with crackdowns on freedom of expression and punitive legislation, serves to create an environment of surveillance and fear.
The government’s true commitment to human rights can be seen in the way they’ve treated the data of the most marginalised in the country – specifically, the data of Rohingya refugees who arrived in Bangladesh in 2017, seeking refuge from targeted violence in Myanmar that a UN fact-finding mission said showed genocidal intent. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) carried out a digital registration process on the Rohingya who had arrived in Bangladesh, with some refugees saying they received insufficient information about how the data was going to be used, and at least one who could read English saying the box to consent to share data with Myanmar had been ticked without his consent. As part of this digital identification drive, the UNHCR gathered biometric data from Rohingya along with family compositions, their places of origin, and information on their overseas relatives. That data was then shared with the Government of Bangladesh, who then shared it back with the Government of Myanmar (presumably upon request) – the very government who oversaw the violence leading the Rohingya to seek asylum in the first place.
These activities lie far from the UNHCR’s stated purpose to safeguard the rights and wellbeing of refugees, and more specifically, run counter to their specific claims of having gained the informed consent of all Rohingya whose data was gathered in this registration exercise (in a statement, the UNHCR said they had obtained consent at least twice for each family). Though the UNHCR is undoubtedly to blame for how the biometric data of the Rohingya was managed and eventually shared with the Government of Myanmar, against the express wishes of many Rohingya themselves, the Bangladesh government’s role cannot be overlooked. As the host country for the Rohingya, they were in a position of power, including when it came to deciding on the level of UNHCR’s involvement in the project. Previous comments from state officials has indicated that they intend for the Rohingya to return to Myanmar as soon as possible, and one can only assume that sharing this data was part of that broader intention. Rohingya refugees have repeatedly expressed fears about forced repatriation, particularly given that repatriation efforts began in 2018, forcing some people to go into hiding.
In addition to these data sharing violations, internet shutdowns have been in place in Rohingya camps since September 2019, and the Rohingya were officially banned from purchasing mobile SIM cards in September 2017. This combination of restrictions on access to information would in ordinary times be fundamentally unjust – further isolating refugees from the outside world, limiting their communication with loved ones, not to mention making aid coordination even more difficult. But during a pandemic, where sharing information on how to protect oneself from COVID-19, or how to get tested or receive the vaccine can be a matter of life or death – particularly given the overcrowded nature of the camps – the internet shutdowns have increased the risk of outbreaks, as well as hampered the work of aid agencies.
The Bangladeshi state’s activities under ‘Digital Bangladesh’ have received much more media attention and resources than their treatment of the Rohingya, or of their use of the DSA to harass and persecute. The launch of Bangladesh’s first satellite, named Banghabandhu-1 after Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, for instance, received wide coverage and attention. This prioritisation has not gone unnoticed by the public. During protests for safer roads in July 2018, after students Abdul Karim Rajib and Dia Khanam Mim were hit and killed by a bus, protest signs included the slogan: “We don’t want Digital Bangladesh, we want SAFE Bangladesh.”
Internet shutdowns have been in place in Rohingya camps since September 2019, and the Rohingya were officially banned from purchasing mobile SIM cards in September 2017.
Yet, the government’s push for Digital Bangladesh continues, with the new target year being set as 2041, a year when the government promises Bangladesh will receive plaudits as a developed, knowledge-based economy.
But as long as the push to get more people online and engaged with digital technology is paired with punishing them for online activities deemed as subversive or anti-government, Bangladesh will only slide further into authoritarianism. The government’s understanding of Digital Bangladesh includes not only increased internet access and digital services – policies that are lauded and supported as development goals – but also clear violations of human rights, with the government broadening its ability to surveil and monitor citizens, creating a digital space that is far from the equitable and democratic future that citizens were promised.
Rethinking Bangladesh: A special issue
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Zara Rahman is a researcher and writer whose work sits at the intersection of technology and social justice. She has written about digital policy in Bangladesh since 2015.