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–– Photo Reuters/ File
–– Photo Reuters/ File

ISLAMABAD: Not only can intelligence agencies snoop through citizens’ emails and phone data, but they now have the power to track and spy on individuals in areas previously thought to be safe from intrusion, speakers and digital rights’ activists said at a conference here on Friday.

The National Conference on Privacy Rights, organised by the Lahore-based Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), was attended by lawyers, journalists and local and foreign Internet and digital rights activists. The overwhelming consensus seemed to be around the lack of a proper legal framework governing communications and digital surveillance in Pakistan and how this made things worse.

Speakers shared research papers and personal experiences, revealing that Pakistan had purchased surveillance technology to spy on its citizens back in 2010, as well as the extent of state intrusion. They argued that surveillance technologies were used as political tools; possibly to exploit or get rid of opponents, to make money or to further other forms of abuse. It was a matter of great concern for Pakistan, everyone agreed, that there was no clear law on digital privacy.

“Pakistan purchased three types of Fin Fisher software from a German company specialising in surveillance technologies. Fin Spy enters a computer and resides in it, collecting files and real time transactions in the background, ostensibly for the operators of the software, such as law enforcement agencies,” said DRF’s Sohail Abid.

Experts at digital rights conference highlight need for effective legal framework to govern online space

Another type of dangerous surveillance software called Fin Fly was a simple USB stick. When inserted into a computer, it could collect information without the knowledge of the owner of that computer.

Yet another variant, Fin Intrusion, gave secret operatives access to Wifi networks in public places such as hotels, offices and homes, to collect data from any and all users using that wireless connection, Mr Abid said.

“This was revealed when an anonymous hacker broke into the German company’s data and made outed more than 40GB of data. The leaked information showed how Pakistan’s warrantless surveillance schemes worked, licencing conditions and the amount of money involved,” he said.

Dr Ben Wagner, director of the Centre for Internet and Human Rights talked about invasion of privacy. “European courts have serious concerns over the use of surveillance technologies. Courts believe that intrusion into private lives do not conform with human rights ensured in the constitutions of respective countries,” he said, also explaining how the European Union is also making stricter laws on the sale of such technologies to countries where human rights are being abused.

He gave the example of his own country, where the courts had upheld the right to privacy of its citizens and barred the government from using surveillance technologies to spy on its citizens.

He argued that the best way to restrict or limit governments’ accesses to surveillance technologies was to voice concerns about intrusion into privacy of individuals at public forums and going public about violations and human rights abuses.

“The EU takes human rights violations seriously. In case human rights abuses in Pakistan or any other country, the EU will make conditions harder for countries such as Pakistan to purchase surveillance technologies unless the country ensures or guarantees that certain standards were maintained,” Dr Wagner said.

He referred to the example of how, when Pakistan entered into a trade agreement with EU, it also had that also human rights components. “Failing to fulfil human rights obligations could mean Pakistan’s dismissal from trade with EU. It has happened with Bangladesh, which was thrown out for not promoting human rights in the country,” said the expert from Europa University in Viadrina

Presenting a draft white paper on Surveillance Laws and Practices in Pakistan, legal expert Waqqas Mir explained how the Fair Trial Act 2013 allowed the government and intelligence agencies to obtain warrants for digital surveillance of citizens.

Warrants were secretly granted by a high court judge and the information was collected without the knowledge of the person under scrutiny and was admissible as evidence in criminal cases against a citizen, giving an individual little chance to defend him or herself.

“It is not the same as a physical warrant that the police must display before searching any premises. Agencies can know each and everything about you.

An individual can only know when it is brought forward as evidence at the time of trial,” said Waqqas Mir explaining how the government was under no burden to destroy evidence or preserve it for later use, which is where the risk of abuse came into the picture.

Although such a warrant is obtained secretly, the only upside to this law was that politicians could monitor the activities of intelligence agencies.

“However, it is important that people demand to know how many such warrants have been issued in the past and how many more will be granted. This is done by the American and British governments to prove that the spying on citizens does lead to thwarting possible terrorist activities,” Mr Mir said.

DRF Executive Director Nighat Dad told Dawn, “The time was right to talk about how the government was intruding into people’s lives, acquiring information without their knowledge. We are trying to initiate a debate on privacy.”

Published in Dawn, November 15th , 2014

Comments (13) Closed

ahmedj Nov 15, 2014 03:23pm

Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) should also be aware of the fact that Pakistan's NADRA details are readily available to foreign governments in the West. Every Pakistani's personal details including their family's are available at a click of foreign government computers. These same western countries have made Data Protection Act for themselves, protecting their own citizens but are acquiring same data from Pakistan.

Pakistan Govt has to be transparent and to acknowledge that such information is being passed on to the west. Also people and the past government responsible should be made public and laws to be made to safeguard further breach.

We must appreciate DRP as well, for educating the masses and taking up such an important issue of negligence.

itsqashi Nov 15, 2014 06:06pm

Good act if they are doing it for security purpose.

edwardian Nov 15, 2014 07:40pm

@itsqashi "Good act if they are doing it for security purpose"

Certainly it is a good act but it has to be under some law, limiting the powers so they don't exceed a limit. In the western world, CCTV is installed at every corner but the law forbids the installation of cameras where it traverse its filming into a private property, such as their back gardens of homes etc. Do we have such a law in Pakistan? Don't you think that without such law the operators can infringe into personal lives through electronic and digital means like mobile phones, computers, internet and even cameras.

Such laws are unheard in Pakistan and DRF has taken the task to aware people like you who only see one side and don't understand personal rights.

M.Malik Nov 15, 2014 07:54pm

Welcome the age of Smart Phones. They are called 'Smart' for a reason.. The service provider or Network you use, stores your entire use history and trails, and no one has control over the data. Privacy is what you sacrifice when you use these gadgets. What you consider 'convenience, and features', could be detrimental to your life and liberty.

edwardian Nov 15, 2014 08:19pm


Pakistan needs "smart" laws for people like you and me.

Awareness is the main issue here.

Haider Rehman Nov 15, 2014 08:27pm

I use Linux (Elementary is) at home PC and use Tails Linux at public hotspots. Don't trust the govt with your privacy!

M.Malik Nov 15, 2014 09:30pm

@edwardian You're asking too much of Pakistani law makers!

Even the U.S., where most of these technologies and tools originate from, does not have too many 'Smart' laws.

On the contrary, under the guise of National Security... whole host of government agencies have been accorded unlimited powers to snoop on citizens and collect data from your phone, internet accounts, e-mail traffic, credit card transactions, banking records, even what you borrow from your library and what you read.... to what you eat at your local restaurants and what you buy for your family..

The Europeans followed the U.S. lead, and Pakistan, like many other 'developing countries' is only just developing the strategy to keep an eye and an ear on the public through these new technologies - all in the name of controlling dissent, but more so for control and intimidation purposes.

Don't be surprised if the data these agencies in Pakistan collect about you, is some day used against you.

Yes, awareness is the key, but an average Joe who spends all his time on Facebook and Twitter, is not even aware of what's around him, much less what personal and private information he/she is sharing with the entire world!

Moby Nov 15, 2014 10:43pm

And our brilliant army cannot locate and shutdown publicly broadcasting mullah radio.

s4 Nov 15, 2014 11:26pm

Google "prism-break" and learn how to use trustless apps and get privacy.

S_Hussain Nov 16, 2014 04:46am

@Haider Rehman, Sorry to disappoint you but changing operating systems like this actually makes your profile stand out, and enhances the ability to match your location based on the OS being used. The only way to avoid detection and stay anonymous is using the TOR network. However because of its unique architecture, it is unbearably slow and at the moment being used by organized criminals and drug traffickers. Search for the 'Dark Web', its an altogether different world out there.

S_Hussain Nov 16, 2014 05:24am

@ahmedj , Data from NADRA is linked with our digital passports. This information is available and shared around different countries, and pops up whenever our passports are scanned on arrival at any international port. Most countries these days issue digital passports, and in reality this information is vital if a person applies for an international visa. The sharing and verification of these data sets is a norm.

i Nov 16, 2014 04:12pm

that is why China has its own version of Cloud, social networks, Twitter., OS etc. like Tencent, Baidu etc.

Just Someone Nov 17, 2014 08:00pm

@Haider Rehman : Don't you think that Linux can be compromised as well.