Pakistan News

Blackberry exit: Is blanket surveillance aimed at tackling terror...or invading privacy?

Blackberry exit: Is blanket surveillance aimed at tackling terror...or invading privacy?

The news of BlackBerry Ltd. moving out of Pakistan comes as no surprise. The story made headlines after the Canadian company received aggressive demands from the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) to have unfettered access to their encryption Enterprise Services.

If this is allowed, the PTA will be able to access encrypted communication between customers of the mobile company.

Also read: BlackBerry delays Pakistan shutdown as talks on govt access continue

At the moment, BlackBerry is in negotiations to decide how much access it can allow. It is important to mention here that the telecommunications giant had compromised its stance of protecting customer privacy to some extent, when met with similar requests by governments in the Middle East.

However, the situation is quite disconcerting when we look at the larger picture.

Pakistan’s government has slowly, but surely started spreading a red hot grip across the country in a purported effort to protect citizens from acts of terrorism by granting itself sweeping powers of blanket surveillance.

In 2014, alarming reports from the Digital Rights Foundation stated that in 2010, someone from Pakistan had purchased an estimated 300,000-euro German FinFisher spying software tool-set.

Though the party, which bought the software that enables its user to spy on electronic devices and hack into Wi-Fi networks, was unknown, FinFisher came under fire in the same year for aiding the Bahrain government in conducting its brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

Using the German company’s services, the GCC government spied on jailed opposition leaders, as well as a number of human rights lawyers and activists.

In 2015, a report by Privacy International stated that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was building a digital espionage network as powerful as that of the United States. It further stated that ISI’s plans to have access to underwater cable landing sites in Karachi would give connection to the world’s internet traffic.

Meanwhile, Pakistan has been passing bills with broad language designed to, in effect, shut down any organisation or incarcerate any citizen it has a problem with.

The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB) is the latest in the list which allows the ‘big boys’ to censor any ‘information’ that is deemed unfit to pass through any information system.

Basically, anything on the internet may be blocked by the government if it considers it necessary — in the name of national interest, security or morality.

This news, combined with PI’s report that states that the Pakistani government is in partnership with the NSA (National Security Agency) of the United States and the GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) of United Kingdom to spy on a massive scale on its own citizens, is disconcerting, to say the least.

If it was a simple question of mass surveillance, saving lives and preventing acts of terror, I wouldn’t mind. I, like most members of the public, have nothing to hide. Unfortunately, we are losing our right to privacy without just cause.

President Obama has claimed that spying has ‘saved lives’, and prevented over 50 terrorist attacks on US soil and elsewhere, since 2001. However, there is no transparent data to reflect this. In fact, in 2013, during an embarrassing congressional grilling, NSA Director Alexander was forced to retract the claim.

Similarly, after the attacks in Paris, some media organisations started regurgitating what intelligence officials were whispering to them — blaming the terrorists’ precautionary use of encrypted data after Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing.

According to one silly theory, because of Edward Snowden, terrorists have now realised that the government is spying on them, and hence resorted to encrypted communication.

As the Intercept wrote, this was shameless emotional manipulation from spy agency directors, who wanted to use the attacks as an excuse to blame Snowden, and increase public opinion in favour of more surveillance.

What they failed to point out was that well before Snowdengate, attacks on Mumbai, Madrid, Bali, London, Boston and several others had taken place.

Furthermore, reports from The Mirror, The Telegraph and The Daily Mail claiming that IS used the PlayStation 4 to communicate were extremely irresponsible and later debunked as baseless.

Perhaps the most significant case of overenthusiastic reporting came from The New York Times, and was later quietly retracted. This report claimed that Paris officials had considered encrypted data to be the reason why information about the Paris attacks eluded authorities.

As Computer World reports, IS used simple SMS services to communicate in France and Belgium, rather than the more complex encrypted message service. This mad hysteria only adds fuel to the fire, legitimising the effort of stripping us of our privacy under the illusion of security.

The argument that mass surveillance is harmless has no merit.

As they say, “absolute power corrupts absolutely”. The Wall Street Journal reported how NSA agents were using these tools to stalk people they were attracted to. And as Snowden revealed, the NSA wasn’t simply spying for the sake of national security, but was also conducting corporate espionage by collecting sensitive data from foreign businesses.

Also read: State of control

This brings us to mass surveillance in Pakistan. Governments come and go, but these far-reaching new laws and spying technologies will stay in place.

Unfortunately, local governments have a history of suppressing the voices of journalists, activists, political workers, and opposition political parties in the country.

Anything and everything can be considered ‘sensitive’ enough to be clamped down, if it serves the political interests of the incumbent. There is also an undeniable pattern of corruption.

Who is to say friends of people in high places will not use surveillance to further personal business interests?

Military dictators have ruled the country thrice — using draconian rules to breathe fire onto their adversaries. What will happen when the next Zia-ul-Haq has the power of mass surveillance at his very finger-tips, with the laws in place to do as he pleases?

The government is watching you. But, who is watching the government?

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