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Big Brother is watching Pakistan

Updated Jun 19, 2013 04:44pm


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US. Army Gen. Keith Alexander, commander of the director of the National Security Agency (NSA) is surrounded by photographers after arriving at a Senate Committee hearing, June 12, 2013. The committee was hearing testimony on Cybersecurity from Gen. Keith Alexander and other officials.   — AFP Photo.
US. Army Gen. Keith Alexander, commander of the director of the National Security Agency (NSA) is surrounded by photographers after arriving at a Senate Committee hearing, June 12, 2013. The committee was hearing testimony on Cybersecurity from Gen. Keith Alexander and other officials. — AFP Photo.
A poster supporting Edward Snowden, a former contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA) who leaked revelations of U.S. electronic surveillance, is displayed at Hong Kong's financial Central district June 17, 2013. — Reuters Photo.
A poster supporting Edward Snowden, a former contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA) who leaked revelations of U.S. electronic surveillance, is displayed at Hong Kong's financial Central district June 17, 2013. — Reuters Photo.

It’s reminiscent of George Orwell’s novel '1984', but it’s real life – the US government's extensive surveillance programme also applied to foreign citizens, and Pakistan is no exception.

As a result of the US government’s PRISM and Boundless Informant programme, nearly 13.5 billion pieces of “intelligence” were collected in Pakistan in just one month, including online information and telephone metadata, or information about the location, time, and duration of a phone call. In a country of 180 million, this could mean any number of people's data could possibly have been checked any number of times.

Though the Foreign Office of Pakistan and the Pakistani Embassy in Washington DC have asked for an explanation from the US government, experts do not anticipate any change in the global monitoring programme.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the recent disclosure by former contractor, Edward Snowden, about the expansive US espionage against its own people have sparked calls for protest by Americans – but spying on other countries perceived to be ‘sources of terrorism’ have not evoked a similar passion amongst the American public.

Yet, activists in Pakistan working to protect digital rights and privacy have criticised the US government’s program through an online petition that has been signed by groups including Bolo Bhi and the Digital Rights Foundation. The government of Pakistan has also responded to the revelations through the Foreign Office, which has requested an explanation from the US embassy in Islamabad. Further, Ahmed Hotiana, the spokesperson for the Pakistani Embassy in Washington DC, stated that “We have taken up the matter with the US to obtain more details on the programme and await their response.” This indicates that the Pakistani government’s reaction has also been relatively muted.

Some experts see little hope for the US reacting positively to these requests by the Pakistani government. Retired Colonel Morris Davis, professor of law at Howard University, explained that President Barack Obama’s administration has ignored complaints about its use of drones to kill people in foreign lands, and therefore, he stated that “I see no reason to believe they will be any more responsive to complaints about snatching electrons.”

Michael Kugelman, senior program associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, simply stated “Complaints from the Foreign Office alone won’t likely bring about any changes,” because “Washington is not known for changing course based on negative feedback from the Foreign Ministry.” He further explained that the US “has its own compelling reasons for continuing the surveillance policy that go beyond what any one country may say.”

However, Kugelman asserts that the revelations about the US global surveillance program will “only worsen America’s image” amongst Pakistanis and “harden existing hostilities.” He stated that reconnaissance programmes lend credibility to the popular narrative in Pakistan describing the US as a “meddling and snooping superpower.” He went onto explain that there is now apparent proof that “American intelligence goes beyond monitoring the Pakistani government and militant organizations, and now includes keeping tabs on the communications of private citizens.”

It appears that the revelations, which have caused a media uproar in general, will have an effect on Pak-US relations, as the honeymoon period between Nawaz Sharif’s newly elected administration and the US comes to a close. Kugelman explains that there will be a short-term effect, and the issue will be raised by Pakistani officials with Secretary of State John Kerry, who is set to visit Pakistan this month.

Yet, Kugelman explains that “cooler heads will prevail,” as Pakistan will notice that it was not singularly targeted by the US global monitoring programme, which also conducted expansive surveillance in India and Jordan, both seen as close allies of the US.

Kevin Gosztolaa, a journalist covering security and state secrets, believes that the NSA revelations will not irreparably harm America’s diplomatic relations with nations like Pakistan. He explains that the US was able to rebound from the release of Wikileaks “which was a much greater threat to America’s credibility” than the current revelations, and will likely do so in this instance.

While many have expressed their surprise and indignation at the US surveillance program, others have treated recent disclosures as mere proof of their long-running suspicions. Kugelman explains that “there may be a ho-hum effect as well—many Pakistanis may simply shrug off the latest revelations as more of the same: The US is always snooping around Pakistan, so what difference does this all make?”

Gosztola echoed this sentiment by stating the NSA disclosures merely “confirm what many Pakistanis probably already know— that their country is a battlefield in the US government's ‘war on terrorism’.”

In a way, the 'War on Terror' mixed with the proliferation of technology has laid the groundwork for the US to conduct such extensive surveillance on its own citizens, as well as foreign citizens from other nations. Colonel Davis states that “Technological innovation has outpaced policy development in the period after 9/11… just as Twitter and other innovations have enabled ordinary people to better communicate and share information, technology has also given governments greater power to mine that data for any number of reasons.” He concludes that the US is “still grappling with where the boundaries should be; where to strike the balance between liberty and security.”

Similarly, Pakistan has seen a bourgeoning of technology as well as terrorism, and could learn a few lessons from the US post-9/11 example. Colonel Morris states that “the lesson other countries can take away from the US experience is the need to communicate with their citizens. The reaction in the US to the recent revelations about government surveillance is driven more by the public being kept in the dark about the programmes rather than the particulars of the programmes. Citizens have a right to know, at least in general terms, what their government is doing in their name.”

While the Pakistani government, its citizens, and internet activists are justified in their reaction to the all-pervasive surveillance, they should know that their protests will probably not stop the US government’s global surveillance activities.

However, there is a lesson that can be learned from the US for countries like Pakistan dealing with terrorism: that they should carefully balance privacy rights and security while involving citizens, rather than keeping them uninformed about measures that seem designed to ensure their security but sacrifice their privacy.

Comments (18) Closed

Ebrhm shakir Jun 19, 2013 05:39pm

It is not only a concern issue, their are one another burning issue which is New constructing "Bomb proof American Embassy" in Islamabad the area is consisting on wide Area more then White House in America. American govt is going to Establishing one more East India Company type project in subcontinent by British Govt and we have seen the disintegration of Mughal Empire in India till 1857.

realistskeptic Jun 19, 2013 05:46pm

Pakistan is completely ill equipped to tackle cyber espionage from the US based on recent revelations regarding the countries whose communications are tracked the most (Pakistan being no.2 on the list behind Iran). A meeting not too long ago between a sensitive organization and a government organization was held to determine if any coordination was taking place with a US federal organization over its network. If the intelligence agency was incapable of finding this on its own, you can imagine the lack of their tech saviness given the fact that PTA had installed deep packet inspectors at international gateways to monitor all traffic, access to which would not be that difficult for the agency. No wonder13.5 bilion pieces of intelligence was collected from Pakistan just in a month while our foreign office remained completely oblivious. With China now investing heavily in cyber espionage, counter cyber espionage and high performance computing, one wonders how much this government is aware of the significance of computer science, communication technology and data security given the fact that some of the MNAs have fake degrees and most of them are landlords with questionable credentials.

Ahmad Jun 19, 2013 06:25pm

Correction: Masters are watching.

Jalil Jun 19, 2013 07:03pm

The way goods are inspected by a country when in transit, similarly data packets are monitored for criminal information in transit. As far as digital rights are concerned, if you access Facebook based in US then US has every right to monitor data moving through US boundaries.

Those looking for Digital freedom and independence are advised to implement their own private islands of internet.

gulzar Jun 19, 2013 07:13pm

They moniterd us they killed us, we killed each other because of them, but at the end of the day they are running they are running yes they are running.

Moeen H Jun 19, 2013 07:35pm

It was through the PRISM that the US discovered that Pakistanis believed that the earth was flat, while the Americans thought that it was a pentagon. Ironically, the rest of the world thought that Pakistanis and Americans were crazy and that the earth in fact was bumpy. I am embarrassed!

Salman Latif Jun 19, 2013 08:09pm

'Boundless Informant' is not a programme, it's a software that is used to make sense of the wild amount of data that NSA gathers through the PRISM programme

Known Jun 19, 2013 10:38pm

Feel sorry for those for whom the beans have just spilled . Why were they thinking that the surveillance would be selective and not as big as it has been discovered now?

independentthinker Jun 20, 2013 12:21am

i have a very simple solution to all these problems. To the American government I say - just change your foreign policy and agree to treat everyone with fairness and respect and you will see the so-called terrorists will become your friends. You will not need to spend billions on protecting yourselves - since no one would want to attack a friend. Do not get involved in other people's business and if you must, be just and don't favour a regime that happens to suit you - even though they are harming their own people. If someone is wrong, go after them and not support them, because they happen to run your economy or fund your party. Supporting what is right might cause pain in the short run, but will become worth-while in the long run.

Qamar Jun 20, 2013 02:24am

Big Brother or Big Bully?

malole Jun 20, 2013 04:01am

Their first priority is to keep the US safe and they will go to any extent to accomplish it.

Sharia Jun 20, 2013 04:40am

The Americans had taken, unnecessarily, so much pain to collect from Pakistan the individual's data of calls while the Pakistani authorities are always ready to provide with all the details with photographs as well to ease their work.

vikram Jun 20, 2013 07:09am

Going by your past any country would be wary of you. Grow up and take control of your country before others take control of it.Live and let live come out of perpetual fear and victimised feeling.

Abdullah Hussain Jun 20, 2013 03:11pm

I fail to understand why US always feel threatened & insecure. Being such a formidable power on earth today US should feel absolutely secured. Why US indulges in so many hidden acts that cast doubt about US activities against others. It is said that only the weak from inside fears most. In my opinion double standard policies by US is the main cause of dismay.

usman Jun 21, 2013 02:21pm

Western civilization relies on technology to make life easier, and this includes the military forces as well. Science and technology have made US armed forces second to none in the world, yet it is not a total or singular answer to all threats and situations. The Bush administration called it the

Mohammad Ali Khan Jun 21, 2013 05:43pm

I wish US could share information which can help in fighting terrorism in Pakistan.

Vijay Dhar Jun 21, 2013 06:00pm

Pakistan should be happy with PRISM as US itself, India and Jordan are also being watched. Pakistan should be even happier that it does not get watched in proportion to the percentage of terror attacks originating from there - stopping terror being the noble goal.

Maz Hasan Jun 21, 2013 07:25pm

Hundreds of terrorist attack attempts on US soil have been thwarted by law enforcement agencies in US since 9/11 and the threats continue to grow. US should have a formidable plan to defend its citizens and the land.. I think more has to been done.