Privatising telecom industry poses no threat to national security – Professor Rohan Samarajiva

Professor Rohan Samarajiva

Privatisation of the telecom industry does not pose a threat to national security, according to Professor Rohan Samarajiva, former Director General of the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission.

During his participation in the President’s Media Division’s ‘101 Katha’ program, Professor Samarajiva expressed his opinion regarding the Sectoral Oversight Committee’s report on National Security, stating that it relies on assumptions and has turned “national security” into a mere slogan. He further said the report lacks a professional study and contradicts the standards set by the Sectoral Oversight Committee.

Expanding on the subject, Prof. Samarajiva highlighted the main reasons behind his stance. He pointed out the ignorance of both the present and the past, emphasising that during the 1990s, Sri Lanka invited numerous firms, including Sri Lanka Telecom, which, at that time, did not possess a mobile phone network.

Despite Mobitel being owned by an Australian company, the management rights were retained by an Australian company, and Mobitel had a history of serving the government due to the telecom firm’s ownership.

Additionally, the operations of Mobitel were overseen by Telstra Corporation, a Japanese business responsible for telecommunications, and the majority of decisions were made by Japanese CEOs, even though the chairman of Telecom was Sri Lankan.

In the midst of the conflict, Sri Lanka had four mobile phone providers and three fixed phone businesses, with Dialog being the only corporation with a Sri Lankan CEO, although it was fully owned by Malaysia. Prof. Samarajiva said the repetition of the phrase “national security” without proper examination, suggesting that it had become a mere mantra or slogan.

He emphasised that when the government solely owned the telecom firm, all foreign calls were routed through the telecom headquarters in Colombo, and any harm to it would isolate Sri Lanka from the international community. Furthermore, he explained that even with cables and satellites, if the software system failed, the entire network would be disrupted, as there was no alternative system in place.

He cited two bomb attacks by the LTTE that occurred on the same day to underscore the national security threat faced by the government-controlled telecom. Following privatisation, Prof. Samarajiva recommended that a Japanese corporation develop a backup system, which was promptly implemented, thanks to their investment.

Prof. Samarajiva noted that a government agency could not have achieved what the Japanese firm did, as most government organisations do not prioritise infrastructure security due to limited funds. He suggested that privatisation, with appropriate controls, allows for investment and urged authorities to consider their recommendations seriously.

As an example, he mentioned a case where Telecom and the Japanese corporation faced a one-million-dollar loss due to a mistake, but the customer was refunded. He also pointed out that during the 1990s, there was a monopoly on international calls, but now international connections are no longer solely dependent on telecom.

He highlighted the use of Gmail for government communication and emphasised that the majority of government information is transmitted through the Gmail domain, which is foreign-owned. Additionally, politicians and government officials use WhatsApp, which is also owned by a foreign entity, to communicate.

Prof. Samarajiva argued that privatisation does not mean government data is being compromised since data centres in Sri Lanka, including those of the telecom company and Dialog, are rented to store government data.

He used the analogy of renting a part of a safety deposit box in a bank, where the control lies with the individual who leases the safe, not the bank. Thus, only the authorised personnel have access to government databases, and having a copy of the data stored outside Sri Lanka enhances security.

He cautioned against the appointment of individuals with political connections to government institutions, as malpractice tends to occur in such cases. He stressed the importance of including knowledgeable individuals in Sectoral committees and encouraged other nations to adopt similar practices.

Prof. Samarajiva expressed disappointment over the submission of the report to Parliament, suggesting that it was influenced by the ideas of the Sectoral committees rather than relying on expert opinions.

(President’s Media)