Govt working with controversial firm to monitor internet traffic: report

October 25, 2019

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The government has acquired the services of a controversial Canada-based company to help build a nationwide “web monitoring system”, according to a New York-based publication Coda Story. — Reuters/File
The government has acquired the services of a controversial Canada-based company to help build a nationwide “web monitoring system”, according to a New York-based publication Coda Story. — Reuters/File

KARACHI: The government has acquired the services of a controversial Canada-based company to help build a nationwide “web monitoring system”, according to a New York-based publication Coda Story.

The report in Coda said that Sandvine is expected to provide equipment for monitoring and analysing all incoming and outgoing internet traffic from Pakistan.

In May, reports surfaced that the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) had directed the telecom industry to deploy a “suitable technical solution” for monitoring, analysing and curbing “grey traffic” — which inclu­des Voice over Internet Protocol and Virtual Private Networks.

Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Azam Khan Swati told the Senate earlier that the PTA had asked Inbox Business Technologies and Sandvine Inc, to provide equipment for monitoring grey traffic. At the same time, he maintained that PTA was not involved with either of the companies and no public funds had been spent on the project.

Outsourcing of web monitoring to Sandvine raises concern

However, according to the Coda report, a March 2018 tender available on the PTA’s website invited bids for the web monitoring system (WMS) “at national level, for identifying and blocking access to any on-line content classified as unlawful under Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016”.

Sharing details of the agreement, the report says the WMS contract is worth $18.5 million and it’s dated Dec 12, 2018. The web monitoring system will use Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) to monitor communications, measure and record traffic and call data on behalf of the PTA.

The contract, it adds, was signed by a number of parties, including Pakistan firm Inbox Business Technologies Ltd, which is acting as a local partner for Sandvine and Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL) for “procurement of hardware, software and provision of related services for web monitoring system”.

The new system is the result of a controversial 2010 law that mandates the monitoring and blocking of any traffic to and from Pakistan.

The report points out that as per a source working at Inbox Business Technologies — which appears to have been licensed to install Sandvine’s equipment — the WMS system is not yet operational.

When asked if PTA had contracted the services of Sandvine or Inbox Business Technologies, Coda was told that the authority was not in “any agreement or contract with Inbox or Sandvine at present or in the past”.

However, the regulator pointed out that these companies “may have been” providing technology to the country’s telecom industry.

The report highlights Sandvine’s role in web monitoring in Pakistan. In 2012, when the government first called for proposals for the building of an internet filtering system, Sandvine was among the companies that responded to human rights concerns and said it would not bid for the project.

A tender notice available on the PTCL’s website confirmed that Sandvine was providing its services in Pakistan dating back at least 2016, it adds.

Sandvine, the report says, came under fire last year after an investigation by the Canada-based Citizen Lab revealed that its DPI was being used in Turkey, Egypt and Syria to redirect users to download legitimate programs ‘bundled with spyware’.

The Citizen Lab also found out that the Sandvine DPI equipment was being used to “block political, journalistic, and human rights content”, it adds.

Despite criticism, the PTA maintains that grey traffic is a crime and its efforts to monitor it through a technical solution are in accordance with law and with joint efforts of all the stakeholders.

Published in Dawn, October 25th, 2019