Orwellian state

Published July 3, 2024

IT seems that the goings-on in judges’ homes is not the only thing that piques Big Brother’s curiosity. Our security apparatus also listens to what ordinary citizens are talking about on their phones, reads the messages they exchange with other people, and watches what they do on the internet.

This startling revelation has come to light recently, thanks to a submission to the Islamabad High Court. The information given to the court revealed that the country’s telecom regulator, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, has forced telecom companies to implement a mass surveillance system through which up to 4m citizens can be monitored at any given time with the click of a button.

Called the ‘Lawful’ Intercept Management System in true Orwellian nomenclature, this system is being run without any regulatory checks and balances or legal controls, allowing the intrusive eyes and ears of unnamed intelligence agencies to spy on anyone they want.

‘Leaked’ phone calls involving prominent citizens had dominated news headlines and social media not so long ago, prompting petitions from some of the affected individuals against intrusive surveillance by the state. The existence of LIMS may not have come to light had the IHC’s Justice Babar Sattar, who heard a petition on the matter, not insisted on demanding answers from the state about who had the power and resources to conduct such surveillance of civilians.

What has since been uncovered is chilling for anyone who cherishes personal freedoms. The judge noted in his order that citizens’ data was being collected without any human intervention or legal warrant, with “the entire content of communication between consumers undertaken through the network of the telecom licensee, including audio and video content and web page records”, being shared with unnamed agencies, according to news reports.

The potential for abuse of such detailed information collected on citizens is immense. The fact that any citizen at any time can be made vulnerable by the state simply listening to and watching what they are doing and using that information to blackmail them would make anyone feel insecure.

Many serving judges have recently complained about the pressures they face, and this should be warning enough that the powerful in our country do not respect any moral or legal boundaries when it comes to implementing ‘orders from above’. There are good justifications for keeping an eye on known criminals, terrorists and foreign spies, but implementing a system to spy on one’s own people is a perverse abuse of power and should be stopped forthwith.

The state must be made to secure legal warrants as a necessary requirement for initiating surveillance of any individual. Such immense power should not be accumulated by any institution as the potential for abuse and the consequences for personal freedoms can be disastrous.

Published in Dawn, July 3rd, 2024

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