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‘No safeguards to protect people from govt snooping’

Updated November 15, 2014
–– 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