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Indications of an upcoming overhaul of Poland’s internet architecture can be found in successive amendments to the National Cybersecurity Act. The Law and Justice government has been working on the legislation for several years.

The amendment added on October 12 establishes an entity called the "Strategic Security Network Operator" (SSNO). It is to be a one-person state-controlled company with the function of a telecommunications operator. The draft bill mentions that frequencies used by state-of-the-art 5G mobile networks are to be reserved solely to the "national operator".

In practice, it means that in order to deliver the fastest 5G internet connection, all private telecom companies operating in Poland (Plus, T-Mobile, Orange, and Play) will have to use the "national operator" as a proxy. Without it, they will have no coverage. The state-owned operator will thus have the upper hand in controlling the type of data mobile network providers and their customers are sending, but also know the exact location of their devices.

State monopoly

But there is more.

GSM network providers (the so-called "telecoms") are companies offering telephone and internet services. They operate on radio frequencies owned by the state and managed by the Electronic Communications Authority. Telecoms lease these frequencies from the state - mainly through subsidiaries (infrastructure operators) - for a fixed fee.

According to our sources, the "Strategic Security Network Operator", also known as the "national operator" - is preparing to take over the intermediation of all frequencies on which private telecoms currently operate.

It would be enough to let the frequency licenses of commercial operators expire. "The national operator" could then make them available as its core network. The state would thus regain monopoly and move closer to consolidating its control over the internet. It will also be able to dictate different prices for access to its network and influence the position of individual telecoms on the market. The "national operator" will become a wholesaler with the power to single-handedly decide to whom it wants to sell the product.

Indications of the impending changes have been around since 2018. Many of the mobile network providers will see their frequency leases expire in the upcoming years, and the Electronic Communications Authority, responsible for renewing the licenses, refuses to respond to their requests for extension.

Frequency leaseholders are already required to collect and share data with police and intelligence services. However, they now retain some control over what is transmitted and to whom. Moreover, the process of blocking specific websites deemed by the government as a threat to "national security" is now difficult.

The Polish government wants to filter internet traffic

Key frequency licenses used in urban areas expire in 2022. Countryside and agricultural areas have leases until 2025-27. On the other hand, after the completion of auctions for the development of networks enabling 5G frequencies, operators will be guaranteed a lease until 2033.

Similar measures are already in place in Russia. Tested earlier this summer, the so-called "RuNet" showed that the government is now capable of isolating Russian internet users from the rest of the world. Putin's regime explains that it is meant to protect the country from "cyber-attacks" orchestrated by the West. What the Russian president means are the sanctions imposed on Russia for attacking Ukraine and human rights violations: part of those sanctions involve restricting Russian banks' access to global payment systems.

The Russian opposition and democratic activists have no doubt that the "RuNet" is all about expanding the state surveillance apparatus and consolidating control over cyberspace. In practice, every Russian network operator is obliged to install a "black box" on its internet gateways in order to allow the government to intercept internet traffic. The owner of such a black box (i.e. the state) may, without the knowledge and consent of the operator and users, filter and, for example, block websites deemed inconvenient for the authorities. The operator has no right to interfere in the content of the device.

Countries that use similar measures always cite security reasons, arguing that the internet can be weaponized and used as a tool of hybrid warfare. Thus, other than Russia or China, similar restrictions have been implemented in South Korea, which for many decades has been in conflict with the communist dictatorship of North Korea.

Cyber police and state-sponsored hackers

Once the Polish "national operator" fully takes over the supply of frequencies, direct access to the "black boxes" will be given to the "cyber police". Its establishment was announced in July by Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, the Minister of Interior, Special Services Coordinator Mariusz Kamiński, and the government's plenipotentiary for cyber security Janusz Cieszyński. It was a response to the hack and leak scandal involving the email account of the PM’s Chief of Staff Michał Dworczyk.

Officially, the new institution is to be named the Central Office for Combating Cybercrime. Mr Kamiński assured that the Office will start operating as early as January 2022. Its staff was supposed to include 350 police officers dedicated to fighting cybercrime, but more officers were still expected to be recruited. It was to be a separate entity reporting directly to the head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Administration. The service was also to be financed by the Cyber Security Fund (PLN 500 million) and be headquartered in Warsaw's Szczęśliwice district.

For the time being, the creation the Central Office for Combating Cybercrime is delayed. The project is still being discussed in the Parliamentary Committee for Internal Affairs, and it will certainly not be finished by the end of this year. The scale of the new anti-cybercrime institution is also evidenced by the urgently-pending bill on special rules for remunerating people who carry out tasks in the area of cyber-security. To compete with the private sector, the Polish government wants to offer exceptionally high salaries to "loyal" hackers willing to work for the state.

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Every day, 400 journalists at Gazeta Wyborcza write verified, fact-checked stories about Polish politics and society, keeping a critical eye on the ruling camp’s persistent assault on democratic values and the rule of law; the growing cultural tension between religious fundamentalism and human rights; and the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic. Our journalists are on the front lines in 25 Polish cities, reporting from the streets, hospitals, and courtrooms about issues that move public opinion.

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