Almost all countries of the world, big or small, have armed forces, intelligence networks and surveillance systems tailored according to their needs. And Pakistan is no exception. During Cold War era, the US and then Soviet Union had surveillance systems and spied not only over their own people but also over other countries. Less than two months after 9/11, then president George W. Bush had signed the Patriotic Act, which was extended in 2011 by President Barack Obama. Further, the federal government expanded the ability of the National Security Agency (NSA) to collect data on US citizens, foreign nationals and governments. The extent of that expansion did not become publicly known until 2013 when Edward Snowden revealed the extensive scope of the NSA’s domestic spying. Cellphones, email and corporate data were subject to NSA surveillance without a warrant, simply because deep state considered it imperative.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has an extensive timeline of the NSA’s domestic spy programme, from its covert formation a month after 9/11 to the formation of a secret room built in AT&T’s San Francisco office and its relationship with Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters. In the United States, surveillance under the Patriotic Act has given the government and its agencies the right to spy on its own citizens. In the last few months, there have been reports regarding warrantless government surveillance of US citizens. Government spying capabilities are vast, including everything from general hacking techniques learned from Germany to a new FBI domestic wireless surveillance unit to the massive spy campaign on Occupy Wall Street run by the post-9/11 Department of Homeland Security. American tech companies like Skype, Facebook, Twitter, Google and various mobile carriers are reportedly turning over user information.
The Patriotic Act was passed after 9/11 in the name of national security that made it easier for the government to spy on American citizens by expanding the authority to monitor phones and emails communications; collect bank and credit reporting records and track the activity of citizens on the internet. The question could be asked as to why the privacy of theAmericans had been thrown to the winds when the American Constitution had guaranteed such rights to the people? But Pakistan is being subjected to scathing criticism for violation of human rights. On 21 July 2015, Privacy International had published a report under the title “Tipping the Scales – Security and Surveillance in Pakistan”. The report claimed that Pakistan is on the hunt for mass level surveillance equipment to encroach upon the privacy of people, and the Inter-Services Intelligence sought to tap worldwide Internet traffic via underwater cables that would have given Pakistan a digital espionage capacity to rival the US.
On July 28 2015, as a follow up of the PI report, Matthew Rice, an advocacy officer for Privacy International, in website Ifex.org/Pakistan carried his write up stating that “every government seems to want to spy in Pakistan. The United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) tapped the fibre optic cables landing in Karachi, among others, and used 55 million phone records harvested from Pakistani telecommunications providers for an analysis exercise. The United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) had a store of SIM keys from Mobilink and Telenor networks, two of the country’s biggest providers.” In a 2013 project revealed for the first time in a Privacy International report, the ISI would tap all internet protocol (IP)-bound communications traffic entering or travelling through Pakistan and corresponding monitoring capacities.
When the US, Britain and India, the so-called the largest democracy of the world, could frame laws for surveillance in the name of national security, why Pakistan should be singled out. Of course, Pakistan is abiding by its Constitution and laws. The National Assembly of Pakistan had unanimously passed a bill that would give intelligence and security agencies powers to conduct surveillance, tap phones and collect data from SMSs and emails. Then prime minister Raja Pervez Ashraf had said: “The law is aimed at the enemies of humanity and terrorists and not at ordinary citizens. The bill will send a message to terrorists that the whole country is united against them and accepts their challenge”. According to the bill the evidence could be collected by the intelligence and law enforcing agencies even before registration of FIR through intercepting emails, SMS, IDPR (internet protocol detail record), CDR (Call detail record) and any form of computer or cell based communication.
In 2013, India had launched a wide-ranging surveillance programme that would give its security agencies and even income tax officials the ability to tap directly into e-mails and phone calls without oversight by courts or parliament. The government started to quietly roll the system out state by state in April 2013. Eventually, it will be able to target any of India’s 900 million landline and mobile phone subscribers and 120 million Internet users. “Security of the country is very important. All countries have these surveillancme programmes,” said a senior telecommunications ministry official, defending the need for a large-scale eavesdropping system. According to officials involved in setting up the surveillance programme, the new system will allow the Indian government and agencies to listen to and tape phone conversations, read e-mails and text messages, monitor posts on Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and track searches on Google of selected targets.
It has to be mentioned that it was the US and the West that had started supporting Afghan jihad with funds and arms. After the demise of the Soviet Union, the US was no more interested in Afghanistan, where the war lords and jihadi groups started fighting among themselves that led to civil war-like conditions. Taking advantage of the situation, the Taliban emerged and controlled 95 per cent of Afghanistan till overthrown by the US and its allies. After 9/11, Pakistan was coerced into joining the war on terror, bringing death and destruction in Pakistan. In fact, Pakistan is harvesting what the US and the West had sown. Having that said, Privacy International’s report on Pakistan suggested that Pakistan’s laws need to be updated to come into line with international standards, including the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. The government must seek reforms in line with international covenants.
—The writer is a senior journalist based in Lahore.