ISLAMABAD: Digital rights activists and lawmakers appear equally concerned by recent claims that Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) gained access to Pakistan’s Internet Exchange under its computer network exploitation (CNE) — or hacking — operations.
The revelations, made by journalists Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Fishman in a recent article for The Intercept, indicate that by using vulnerabilities in ‘Cisco routers’ and software reverse-engineering (SRE), the agency was able to access “almost any user of the Internet” inside Pakistan and also able “to re-route selective traffic across international links towards GCHQ’s passive collection systems.”
An official GCHQ document, marked ‘Top Secret’ and released by The Intercept along with Mr Greenwald’s story, is claimed to be the source of these claims. The document is purported to be an application for the extension of a warrant under which GCHQ conducted international surveillance.
In a specific reference to Pakistan the document states: “GCHQ’s CNE operations against in-country communications switches (routers) have also benefited from SRE. Capability against Cisco routers developed by this means has allowed a CNE presence on the Pakistan Internet Exchange which affords access to almost any user of the internet inside Pakistan. Our presence on routers likewise allows us to re-route selected traffic across international links towards GCHQ’s passive collection systems.”
Former minister for Information Technology and a current member of National Assembly Standing Committee on Information Technology Awais Ahmed Khan Leghari was surprised by these claims when asked to comment. He said that he had never heard of anything like it during his time in office, adding that if these claims were proven to be credible, they warranted pursuing in an international court of law.
“This is against global telecom regulations. No country’s agency can authorise intelligence-gathering against another country, no treaty ratified by Pakistan under the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) gives UK intelligence the right to do this,” he said.
Lately, GCHQ has been under fire in the UK for what a judicial oversight body called “act[ing] unlawfully in the handling of intercepted communications data and breaching human rights”.
The revelations have also alarmed civil society and digital rights groups in Pakistan. Nighat Dad of the Digital Rights Foundation, in a statement released on Tuesday, said: “This hacking operation, at a scale never previously seen before... seriously undermines the right to privacy of all Internet users in Pakistan. By targeting a key point in Pakistan’s communications infrastructure, GCHQ have put at risk the security and integrity of a significant portion of [the country’s] communications infrastructure.”
“When ostensibly democratic nations carry out such draconian and unethical actions against the citizens of nations they are ‘allies’ of, it sets a troubling precedent,” she concluded.
Bytes For All (B4A), an Islamabad-based digital rights firm, is also a party to the case against GCHQ before the UK’s Investigatory Powers Tribunal. In a ruling handed down on Tuesday, the tribunal confirmed that the agency had violated its own procedures and breached human rights in its surveillance of two human rights organisations.
B4A Country Director Shahzad Ahmed, talking to Dawn, posed a number of questions in which he suggested that the citizens of the country should ask their parliamentarians with regard to online surveillance.
“Firstly, is the government aware of mass surveillance in Pakistan; is the government cooperating with other countries in this effort and on what conditions; why have mass surveillance tools secretly been deployed in the country; and, what is the cost of this surveillance that is being paid out of taxpayer money?”
Answers to these questions, he said, would go a long way in establishing the extent of the problem that was being faced by Pakistani Internet users.
IT Minister Anusha Rehman and the Foreign Office spokesperson could not be reached for comment, despite repeated attempts.
Published in Dawn, June 24th, 2015