A report published by London-based advocacy group Privacy International claims that the practical surveillance capacity of the Pakistani government and Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) has exceeded local and international regulation laws for surveillance.
The report released on Tuesday claims that mass network surveillance has been taking place in Pakistan since at least 2005. Pakistani intelligence agencies have allegedly abused their communications surveillance powers by spying on politicians and apex court judges. It further adds that internet censorship and widespread monitoring has been employed to target activists, lawyers and journalists.
The government obtained technology for surveillance from local as well as some foreign companies such as Ericsson, Alcatel, Huawei, SS8 and Utimaco.
Furthermore, the condition of communications surveillance in Pakistan has also been outlined in the report, and the vague laws that supervise it have been compared to international human rights law standards.
The report also claims that Pakistan participated in international intelligence operations by the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ). Meanwhile, Pakistan has allegedly been subject to those operations as well.
In 2013, the ISI allegedly called for the commissioning of a mass surveillance system to tap international undersea fibre optic cables, the report said. However, it was not mentioned whether Pakistan went ahead with this new surveillance system in recent times.
Surveillance in Pakistan
More than 70 per cent of the country's population has mobile phone subscriptions, and an estimated 11 per cent of the population uses the internet, the report said. This makes surveillance in Pakistan advanced and comprehensive as there are currently 50 operational internet providers and five mobile phone operators.
Some of the interception of Pakistani phone networks has been unlawful, the report claims. A case at the Supreme Court pertaining to phone tapping showed that the ISI allegedly tapped 6,523 phones in February, 6,819 in March and 6,742 in April this year.
The Pakistani military and intelligence have allegedly received high levels of funding from governments abroad in order to develop an advanced surveillance infrastructure due to the country's role in countering insurgents and Islamist groups. The report claims that agencies within the government went forward with mass storage and capture of communications of ordinary citizens. On the other hand, in the past they had mainly referred to tactical military surveillance tools.
The report also claims that the Peshawar school attack in 2014, which claimed 150 lives, has been cited as a reason to increase surveillance of communications in the country and popular support for it is high.
The report stated that Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) requires all Internet Service Providers (ISP) to provide the authority with information on their clients. As an anti-terrorism measure, PTA allegedly ordered all phone service providers and ISP to ban virtual private networks (VPN) and encryption. Banning their use has a negative impact on, journalists and sources for instance, to safely communicate information pertaining to public interest, the report elaborates.
The report claims that the PTA's licensing requires all phone service providers to make their networks ‘lawful interception-compliant’. This allows them to have access to their data.
Pakistan's cooperation in international surveillance
The government of Pakistan is known to be the largest recipient of funds from the NSA and it is allegedly involved in surveillance against its own citizens, the report claims. Pakistan is also NSA's third party partner, which means that the relationship between the two is considered to be long-term, involving “higher degrees of trust” and “greater levels of cooperation”.
The report adds that the NSA would “willing to share advanced techniques…in return for that partner’s willingness to do something politically risky”.
Pakistan's relationship with the NSA is valued to the extent that the US agency allegedly maintains a ‘special collection service’ at its embassy and consulates in Pakistan, the report claims.
Pakistani phone service providers such as Telenor, Warid, Ufone, Mobilink and Pakistan Telecommunications Limited (PTCL) have allegedly provided legal interception access and monitoring centres over the years.
Recommendations to defence committee, foreign companies and governments
The report also contains recommendations on how Pakistan may be able to shift from its current surveillance model to one that is not a threat to democracy and complies with human rights laws.
It recommends the senate committee on defence to carry out an investigation into NSA's surveillance in Pakistan and the legality of their actions, as well as the extent of arrangements made between the country's intelligence agencies and the NSA. Furthermore, it recommends that the committee should also conduct an investigation into GCHQ's alleged access to the Pakistan Internet Exchange.
To foreign companies the report recommends periodic reviews of the government's use of technology sold to them and decline further maintenance or updates if ultimately the use is not in accordance to contractual obligations. It further says that usage should be made clear in contractual agreements which include human rights safeguards and safety against unlawful usage.
The report also recommends that foreign governments and export control authorities conduct detailed audits of security cooperation provided by law enforcement, military or intelligence agencies in Pakistan since 2000, in order to deduce if such cooperation led to human rights violations.
Furthermore, it recommends ensuring human rights criteria are added to the export control provisions for surveillance technologies. The report adds that the provisions should also consider national legal frameworks and records of electronic surveillance usage.
The report concludes that laws in Pakistan should be updated in accordance with international legal standards. This includes the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. Furthermore, it adds that the government must also seek reforms from international bodies such as the UN Human Rights Committee in regard to interference with rights through communications surveillance.