Concerns over new govt plans to monitor online traffic

Published June 8, 2019
Web system to measure traffic, record voice and call data for national security. — Creative commons
Web system to measure traffic, record voice and call data for national security. — Creative commons

KARACHI: Given government plans to monitor online traffic, the telecom industry and digital rights advocates have cited various privacy and transparency concerns over the process.

The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) recently directed the telecom industry to deploy a suitable technical solution for monitoring, analysing and curbing grey traffic.

The system would be called Web Monitoring System (WMS) in order to monitor communications for the purposes of national security, measure and record traffic, call data record, and quality of services as specified by the PTA.

The regulation under the Monitoring and Reconciliation of International Telephone Traffic Regulations 2010 (MRITT) mandates the monitoring and blocking of any traffic (encrypted or

not), including voice and data, originating or terminating in Pakistan. This includes all encrypted VoIP services.

Web system to measure traffic, record voice and call data for national security

The Senate Standing Commi­ttee on Cabinet Secretariat, too, has expressed its concern over PTA signing an agreement for monitoring internet traffic with US-based Sandvine Corporation — which is allegedly working as a partner with Israeli intelligence. Under the agreement, the company would have easy access to all digital information, including WhatsApp.

This is not the first time Pakistan has chalked out plans for internet filtering.

In 2007, the PTA announced an agreement between Inbox Technologies for a system that would give authorities the capability to monitor and block grey traffic at IP level.

In 2011, users were told to register their IPs with the PTA so that it could be added to the Whitelist. If they were using VoIP or VPNs, it had to be with the explicit permission of the authority.

A Whitelist is a list of items that are granted access to a certain system or protocol. When a Whitelist is used, all entities are denied access, except those included in the list.

IP-level blocking and the manner in which it is being implemented is posing several problems for Internet Service Providers (ISPs), businesses and internet users.

“If followed strictly, the system could legitimise blocking services such as WhatsApp, Facetime and Messenger. Since the regulation requires internet monitoring on a massive scale, it also allows the blocking of VPN services as they are considered interference when monitoring internet traffic,” said Wahajus Siraj, member of PM’s Task Force on IT & Telecom.

The process, he adds, will create hardships and red-tape process. “The red-tape circle of Whitelisting on IPs is extended from the customer to operator, from operator to the PTA, from the PTA to the ministry and the ministry to vendor, and same return path. It is taking weeks to resolve issues that should be addressed in minutes.”

In an email correspondence with Mr Siraj over the finalisation of IP Whitelisting regulations — a copy of which is available with Dawn — a PTA official said that the system was introduced because of concerns about the rising trend of grey traffic.

“WMS is being deployed by the industry to protect their legal interests. The Supreme Court of Pakistan has taken notice of grey traffic and desired that WMS be installed in six months. The PM in a meeting asked PTA to deploy a suitable system to address immorality and indecency in the country,” the official wrote in the email.

However, broadband providers maintain the process was finalised without a consultation process. “There is no documented process on regulation. Once a website is blocked, there is no remedy available on how to unblock it and how many days the process will take. In case of blocking of Whitelisted IPs of operators, who will financially compensate the operators as they are in turn asked by their customers for compensation,” he said.

“The prime minister is advocating making businesses easy for people and job creation. [But] these regulations are making businesses of internet-related enterprises difficult, could increase the cost of businesses and could lead to job eliminations.”

How authorities block content

Prior to Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (Peca) 2016 enactment, requesting the blocking of a website would require complainants to go through an inter-ministerial committee which would then direct the PTA to order ISPs to block the relevant website. However, with the passage of Peca, the PTA, now, has authority to directly block what it considers to be “objectionable content” — a broadly-defined term under the law.

Authorities can censor and block URLs through the Pakistan Internet Exchange (PIE). ISPs are then required to carry out these directives issued by PTA. If they do not conform, ISPs can have their licences suspended.

It is assumed that the PTA maintains a list of sites to filter; however, the details of such a list are not public. No guidelines describing the reasons of particular censorship cases, bodies involved, or mechanisms employed are publicly available.

Earlier in February, the Awami Workers Party (AWP) challenged the blockage of its website by PTA and asked the authority to give reasoned orders to do so.

PTA responded saying it had drafted rules relating to removal and blocking of websites, which were pending approval by federal government. It also stated it had developed an online e-portal for lodging of complaints by government agencies against online content, and a general email address had been notified for lodging of such complaints by the general public.

“However, there is no portal for lodging such complaints. Peca’s sub-section 4 of Section 37 grants the rights to appeal when content is blocked by PTA. But no due process has been specified by the authority,” said Mohammad Haider Imtiaz, lawyer representing AWP.

“The PTA should regularly publish what content it has blocked and why, just like Pemra, so that the aggrieved can appeal the decision accordingly,” he said.

Similar is the non-transparent approach towards the WMS system.

“There should be a process of warrant before wiretapping is done and an accountability of regulatory mechanisms through judiciary,” said Usama Khilji of Bolo Bhi.

“Prior to the introduction of WMS, no tender notice was advertised. The telecos have contributed money to the system but is the process being audited. Private lives have become digitalised and a lot more vulnerable. There is a question mark over how communication is being monitored,” he adds.

Published in Dawn, June 8th, 2019



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