Surveillance and the state

A recent conference on Digital Privacy Rights raised some vital questions about the Pakistani state's Big Brother tendencies. By Kamil Hamid

Surveillance and the state
The issues of surveillance, security and right to privacy, while not new, have come to recent prominence in Pakistan. In an era where the state is able to not only control what information its public accesses on the internet, but also monitor all their activities, the debate surrounding these issues has moved into the digital sphere. The need for discussion and reflection on these topics lead to the first ever “National Conference on Privacy Rights” in Islamabad on Friday, November 14th.

Spearheaded by Digital Rights Foundations in collaboration with Privacy International, a London based privacy group, the conference aimed to highlight key issues and rhetoric surrounding the question of why privacy represents an important human right – particularly in an internet age. The conference also marked the launch of Digital Rights Foundation’s white paper titled “Surveillance Laws and Practices in Pakistan”, authored by lawyer Waqqas Mir.

An important topic of discussion introduced by Nighat Dad, director of the Digital Rights Foundation, was the use of FinFisher, a German-based surveillance software currently utilised by the Pakistani government to monitor its own citizens. Sohail Abid, also a member of the Digital Rights Foundation, noted that the Pakistani government currently utilises three different programs from FinFisher. One given example was that of FinFly USB, which allows a single USB device to access any and all information present on a given computer. International expert on Surveillance Technologies, Ben Wagner noted that licensed exports of surveillance technology are going down, while unlicensed exports of the same technology are going up. He noted: “Whether we like it or not, everybody is an online citizen… If you create a database, live with the fact that it could eventually become public.”
You could declare a feminist activist a national enemy

Lahore-based teacher and co-founder of Pakistan Feminist Watch, Nabiha Meher Shaikh brought up the use of surveillance in relation to anti-terrorism laws and the Pakistani government. “The trouble is that we cannot define national security. Who becomes the enemy? Who becomes worthy of surveillance?” she asked. She also noted the potential for abuse that a broad reaching term such as national security could be prone to: “Under the [guise of] national interests, you could declare a feminist activist as a national enemy, that is where this gets problematic.”

Building on an earlier point regarding the use of digital surveillance as part of a larger spying effort, Open Internet Activist Fouad Bajwa stated that “11% of the population of Pakistan is online, and this is primarily composed of youngsters.”

Umar Cheema of the Centre for Investigative Reporting in Pakistan, recounted his harrowing experience of being kidnapped in 2010. After being assaulted and beaten his phone was also stolen, which resulted in his kidnappers being able to access his contacts and data. This in turn resulted in his family and contacts being continually threatened due to their association with him. Cheema believes that he continues to be surveilled to this day due to his work in investigative journalism. “The scope of spying is not limited to Pakistan or Pakistani agencies. It is being done throughout the world”, he reminded his audience after providing an example of an Iranian journalist being persecuted due to their Liked pages and posts on Facebook. Cheema’s story emphasised that hacking and privacy violations can have a chain effect. A single device or account being hacked can compromise a person’s entire online identity and well-being.

Lahore-based lawyer Waqqas Mir posed a general question to the audience: “Are we more concerned about privacy or about the abuse of data being collected?” Cheema responded by stating that he bracketed the two together: “For me, if someone has the information then who can guarantee that they will use it correctly?”
The earliest examples of wiretapping can be traced back to the 19th century United States

Mir then introduced his white paper by detailing the history of surveillance as conducted by the Pakistani state. He asked the audience to recall that privacy only became acknowledged as human right following World War II, in 1948, and that the earliest examples of wiretapping can be traced back to the 19th century United States, thanks to the telegraph system. “The position in Pakistan is reflective of what has been going on in the entire world,” he said, when discussing the ability of the very definition of privacy to be changed in accordance with the law.

Usama Khilji speaks at the conference
Usama Khilji speaks at the conference

In addition, the conference raised several other important points for attendees to consider. First was the notion of the legality of spying. “Surely we can’t think that before 2013 the agencies weren’t tapping our phones?” questioned Mir when discussing the implementation of the Fair Trial Act in Pakistan. The nature of surveillance and hacking in a more personalised context was also brought up by Nabiha Meher Shaikh, particularly in relation to women being attacked on the internet. She discussed the prevalence of revenge pornography and online shaming in the context of vulnerable individuals online. “In the world we [women] live in, our bodies don’t belong to us; this is the same online. The internet is a new playground which many of us are happily misusing without realising what we are doing,” she said. Perhaps most chillingly, Mir reminded the audience that, “We live in a reality where even the law only exists in certain parts of the country. Imagine the situation in Balochistan.”

Former member of the National Assembly Bushra Gohar and ANP senator, Afrasiab Khattak participated in the final session of the conference, which focused on suggestions towards strengthening privacy rights in the country.

While the outlook on privacy rights in Pakistan seems grim to begin with, the initiative shown by Digital Rights Foundation and its allies have, at the very least, begun an important conversation on how privacy and the right to digital security could be shaped in 21st century Pakistan.