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Concerns voiced over digital surveillance

Updated February 08, 2015

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— Reuters/file
— Reuters/file

KARACHI: Two rights groups working on internet freedom — Bolo Bhi and Digital Rights Foundation — have expressed reservations over extensive digital surveillance powers given to investigation agencies.

While discussing at a meeting on Saturday the draft of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill Pakistan 2015, formulated last year by the Ministry of Information Technology and pending before a National Assembly sub-committee for review within the next two weeks, the rights activists said the law proposed harsh penalties for violators.

Lawyer Zahid Jamil explained the articles and the language of the proposed law which, according to him, needed to be discussed before the draft’s enactment as law.

Foremost among the litany of complaints against the bill was equating cyber crime prevention to “...contributing towards the national security of the nation”, as was also mentioned in Minister of State for IT Anushay Rehman’s statement of objectives and reasons.

One section of the bill states that “…any real time collection or recording of content data shall only be conducted through and in coordination with and facilitated by the intelligence agency or intelligence service”.

The activists argued that this went against the basic rights provided in the Constitution.

Jahan Ara, president of the Pakistan Software Houses Association and a social activist, said the description of the proposed law was vague. “Overarching powers have been given to the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), which need to be looked into. There are not enough safeguards in the bill to protect freedom of speech also.”

Another aspect of the bill that was debated at length was a section titled ‘Special protection of women’.

According to activist Afia Salam, “clarification of this specific law is needed as any kind of interpretation can be made out of it. Most of the clauses in the bill are already covered in the Pakistan Penal Code. We don’t need additional laws specifically for it.”

The need for a law dealing comprehensively with cyber crimes was felt soon after the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Ordinance expired in 2009, according to the representatives of the Digital Rights Foundation.

Its executive director Nighat Dad said: “Lack of procedural safeguards against surveillance activities carried out by investigation agencies poses a serious threat to human rights, especially the right to privacy.” She emphasised four factors which she said should be kept in mind before proceeding with the law: “Information sharing with foreign governments and entities should be regulated by specific laws and subject to independent oversight. Second, a clear and accessible legal regime should govern any data copied and retained by state authorities. Third, requiring mandatory data retention by service providers threatens the right to privacy. And lastly, service providers should not be required to keep the fact of real-time collection and recording of data secret indefinitely.”

Another meeting on the issue will be held on Monday.

Published in Dawn, February 8th, 2015

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