Over the past few months, elections are probably the only issue that dominated the political discourse more than leaked audio clips. With politicians, apparently, at the receiving end, there have been widespread concerns over who’s snooping on these conversations and how they are coming out.
The second part is easier to answer. Most of these conversations were leaked on Twitter. Anonymous accounts first give a forewarning that a conversation is about to be leaked. Then comes the bombshell — a video with a black background and green soundwaves with subjects’ pictures. Captions are also added to them for easier comprehension.
Now comes the trickier part of the question. Who is recording them? The answer could be anyone’s guess. While many suspect it to be the handiwork of spy agencies, some also blame professional hackers. The saga gets further convoluted as all spy agencies, without the distinction of civil or military have the ability and the legal cover to pry on the conversations.
A report submitted before the Supreme Court in 2015 stated that the army’s Inter-Services Intelligence and Military Intelligence and civilian Intelligence Bureau and police have the power to tap phone calls under Section 24 of the Telecommunication Act, 1996; Section 5 of the Telegraph Act, 1885 and Investigation for Fair Trial Act, 2013. Additionally, cellular companies, under the clause of “legal interference” in their licence, are bound to share phone call data with law enforcement agencies if required.
Civil, mly agencies and police could listen to phone calls; politicians are ‘the disproportionate target’
Under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, intruding on the privacy of an individual through electronic means is a serious offence. Section 21 of the law states that the use of electronic means to cause reputational damage or breach privacy could land a person in prison for up to seven years or up to a Rs5 million fine.
Politicians ‘the victims’
Yet these conversations are recorded and leaked, with politicians apparently the disproportionate target of these leaked conversations. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, PTI chief Imran Khan, former Punjab chief minister Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, former finance minister Shaukat Tarin, KP’s ex-finance minister Taimur Jhagra are a few names on this unwanted list.
The conversations of the family members of some politically-exposed persons have also surfaced. A recent leak purportedly was of a conversation featuring the mother-in-law of Chief Justice of Pakistan Umar Ata Bandial. Another purportedly featured the ex-CJP Saqib Nisar’s son.
According to PTI leader Maleeka Bukhari, the audios are being leaked systematically with politicians “the sole target”.
She added that under the law, intelligence agencies can record audio but with the permission of the relevant court.
“I am against maligning politicians through such tactics and in case PTI will form its government I will make efforts to curb this menace,” said Ms Bokhari, who served as the minister for state on law and justice during the previous PTI government.
Interestingly, when Mr Khan was the prime minister, he defended the ISI’s powers to record phone calls and even justified the bugging of the PM’s Office. However, during a recent interaction with the court reporters, he said that he never defended the breach of privacy rights.
The purpose of these leaked conversations is also questionable as they have no legal standing in any court of law, thanks to the parameters chalked out by the former CJP Asif Saeed Khan Khosa. In the case pertaining to the leaked videos of former accountability judge Arshad Malik, the ex-CJP set tough standards for the admissibility of electronic evidence.
Talking to Dawn, former chief justice Saqib Nisar said that he heard a case of phone tapping and also set some parameters for using these conversations as evidence. He said he also summoned relevant officials and worked out the restrictions for phone tapping to protect privacy.
Since the hearing was in-camera, the ex-CJP said he could not divulge more details.
The ‘sordid’ history
The history of Pakistan has seen numerous instances in which leaked call recordings stirred a political story. Most were in the time when telephones were the only source of communication. Some believed that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was the first prime minister to have ordered the ISI to tap the phones of his political opponents after protests broke out against his government in 1977.
In 1996, tapping phones was one of the reasons for the ouster of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. The then chief justice, Sajjad Ali Shah took suo motu notice after he found that his phone was bugged. Later, during the proceedings of a case against Ms Bhutto’s ouster, the counsel of former president Farooq Ahmed Leghari justified his client’s actions by stating that Ms Bhutto’s government was taping the phones of Supreme Court judges.
In 2001, the sitting judge of Lahore High Court, Justice Malik Qayyum, had to resign after his audio recordings with Shehbaz Sharif surfaced.
In 2015, late Senator Mushahidullah Khan referred to an audio tape of former ISI DG Lt Gen Zaheerul Islam recorded by the IB. In the audio clip, Lt Gen Islam could be heard inciting PTI’s protestors to take over the PM House during the party’s sit-in of 2014, as per Mr Khan’s claims who added that the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had played it to the then ex-COAS Gen Raheel Sharif.
All in on it
The game of recording audio — and in selective cases, even leaking them — is played by both civilian and military sides.
An IB official said spy agencies, his own, have the resources to record audio conversations. However, he claimed that spy agencies never use their resources to breach the privacy of citizens as recording gadgets were purchased from the taxpayers’ money and to be used for national security purposes.
According to an official of a spy agency, provincial governments have also acquired the equipment for tapping phone calls. He said that since intelligence agencies are capable of recording audio, therefore, they provide it to the government.
The military’s spokesperson did not respond when Dawn contacted him for comments.
Some of these conversations are even acquired from cellular networks. A senior official of the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority said they have no oversight on service providers if they share data with intelligence agencies.
Some spy agencies official Dawn talked to also hinted at the involvement of novice hackers who have bugged people’s devices using inexpensive software and applications available online. But cyber security experts say these carefully curated leaks bear the signs of a systematic campaign and not of any immature sleuth. They say civil and military commands are capable of managing this.
There are several steps an individual could take to avoid any intrusion and subsequent bugging. Cyber security experts suggest users to not click on any link coming from an un-trusted source or hand over their cell phones to any stranger.
Published in Dawn, May 7th, 2023