Thursday
July 25, 2024

Telecom Companies in Pakistan: A Panoptic Surveillance System

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By: Lt Col JS Sodhi (Retd), Editor, GSDN

Pakistan: source Internet

The revelation that telecom companies operating in Pakistan are managing a mass surveillance system, known as the Lawful Intercept Management System (LIMS), has sent shockwaves through the nation. This system enables the interception of data and records of telecom customers without any regulatory mechanism or legal procedures, as per the directives of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA). This startling information came to light in an Islamabad High Court (IHC) order related to the surveillance of citizens, where private phone conversations were recorded and subsequently leaked on social media.

The Revelation and Its Immediate Impact

The mass surveillance system was uncovered amidst the backdrop of the February 8, 2024 polls, during which several audio clips, including those of ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan and his spouse, were leaked on social media. This led to a court case seeking to understand the extent of surveillance being conducted. From the surveillance center, a designated agency can initiate a track and trace request through the LIMS for any SIM, IMEI number, or MSISDN identity belonging to a consumer. The magnitude of this surveillance system is staggering. Estimates suggest that at any given time, over 4 million citizens can be surveilled, representing 2% of all telecom consumers in Pakistan. This mass surveillance system operates without any judicial or executive oversight, raising significant concerns about the violation of fundamental rights.

Concerns from Digital Rights Experts

Several digital rights experts expressed grave concerns over the harmful impact of an unregulated mass surveillance system. Nighat Dad, a prominent digital rights advocate, emphasized that surveillance must meet certain criteria—legitimate aim, necessity and proportionality, transparency, and oversight. LIMS, she pointed out, violates all these principles. She stressed the need for strict enforcement of the Fair Trial Act to regulate such actions.

Haroon Baloch from ‘Bytes for All’ described LIMS as a “mass surveillance system” that allows state agencies to monitor and track citizens’ movements through digital interception for an unlimited time frame. LIMS can monitor unencrypted traffic data traveling through telecommunication networks, such as IP addresses, websites accessed, and browsing history. It can also intercept unencrypted content data, including mobile calls, SMS, MMS, and communication data from applications that do not offer end-to-end encryption.

Ramsha Jahangir, a tech and digital rights journalist, was particularly alarmed by the secrecy surrounding this invasive system. She expressed concerns over its ability to collect encrypted data, such as WhatsApp messages, and request tech companies to decrypt content. However, she noted that it is unlikely for companies to comply with such requests in the absence of a court order.

Legal Implications and Breach of Fundamental Rights

No official from the executive, federal government, intelligence agencies, or police is authorized to undertake surveillance of Pakistani citizens without legal procedures. Any government employee or intelligence agency member involved in unauthorized surveillance, or telecom companies facilitating such activities, could be liable for offenses under the Telegraph Act, the Telecommunication Act, the Fair Trial Act, and the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA).

Unauthorized surveillance breaches fundamental rights guaranteed by Articles 9, 10A, 14, and 19 of the Pakistan Constitution, which protect the liberty, dignity, and privacy of citizens. Such actions cause irreparable harm to the surveilled individuals.

The Role of Intelligence Agencies and Historical Context

The mass surveillance system operates without regulatory checks and balances or legal controls, allowing intelligence agencies to spy on citizens indiscriminately. The existence of LIMS came to light due to the persistence of IHC’s Justice Babar Sattar, who demanded answers from the state about the surveillance of civilians.

A letter from six Islamabad High Court (IHC) judges to the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) highlighted the interference of intelligence agencies in judicial affairs, including attempts to pressure judges through abduction, torture of relatives, and secret surveillance. The letter detailed several instances of intimidation and interference by intelligence officials to influence case outcomes. Judges reported being pressured by ISI operatives, facing abduction of relatives, and even finding their homes bugged with spy cameras.

The judges’ letter emphasized the need to determine whether there is a policy by the executive, implemented by intelligence operatives, to intimidate judges. They supported former IHC judge Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui’s demand for a probe into allegations of ISI interference, highlighting the importance of addressing such issues to uphold judicial independence.

Audio Clip Leaks and Political Fallout

The issue of audio clip leaks, particularly those involving politicians, has been a major concern. Many of these conversations were leaked on social media, often by anonymous accounts. The leaked conversations raised questions about who was recording them. While spy agencies are suspected, some also blame professional hackers.

The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act makes intruding on an individual’s privacy through electronic means a serious offense, with penalties including imprisonment and fines. Despite this, leaked conversations of politicians, including Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, PTI chief Imran Khan, and others, have surfaced, raising concerns about privacy violations.

Historical Precedents of Surveillance and Political Manipulation

The history of Pakistan is replete with instances where leaked call recordings stirred political controversies. In the 1970s, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto reportedly ordered the ISI to tap the phones of his political opponents. In 1996, phone tapping was one of the reasons for the ouster of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. In 2001, Justice Malik Qayyum of the Lahore High Court had to resign after his audio recordings surfaced. In 2015, an audio tape of former ISI DG Lt Gen Zaheer ul Islam, recorded by the Intelligence Bureau (IB), was cited in a political controversy.

Both civilian and military agencies have been involved in recording and leaking audio conversations. An IB official acknowledged that spy agencies have the resources to record audio conversations but claimed they use these resources for national security purposes. However, the involvement of novice hackers and the systematic nature of the leaks suggest a more organized campaign.

The Need for Oversight and Accountability

The mass surveillance system in Pakistan raises significant concerns about privacy, accountability, and the rule of law. The revelations about LIMS highlight the urgent need for regulatory mechanisms and legal procedures to oversee surveillance activities. There must be strict enforcement of existing laws, such as the Fair Trial Act and PECA, to protect citizens’ fundamental rights.

Additionally, there needs to be greater transparency and oversight of intelligence agencies to prevent unauthorized surveillance and ensure accountability. The judiciary must play a crucial role in safeguarding citizens’ rights and ensuring that surveillance activities meet legal and ethical standards.

Conclusion

The existence of the Lawful Intercept Management System (LIMS) and its use for mass surveillance in Pakistan raises significant concerns about privacy, legality, and the role of state agencies. The lack of regulatory checks and balances, combined with the potential for abuse, underscores the need for transparency, oversight, and adherence to legal standards. The revelations from the Islamabad High Court and the subsequent expert opinions highlight the urgent need for a reevaluation of surveillance practices to ensure the protection of citizens’ fundamental rights.

The historical context of surveillance in Pakistan shows a persistent pattern of using technology for political leverage and control. The current practices, enabled by advanced technological capabilities, pose new challenges to privacy and civil liberties. Addressing these challenges requires a concerted effort from the judiciary, government, civil society, and international bodies to uphold the rule of law and safeguard the rights of individuals in the digital age.





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8 days ago

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