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Monitoring in the digital age

The internet is a new iteration of the public sphere and online users have the same legal protections that are available to them offline

Monitoring in the digital age

The phrase “strategic depth” is a loaded term in our country. But the history of technological innovation has an interesting relationship with this term. The Cold War (1945–1991) between the USSR and USA/UK had made doomsday scenarios a global reality. A nuclear attack wiping out an entire country or continent had become possible. It was in the early 1960s, when the Cuban Missile Crisis was at its peak, that the US Department of Defence felt the need to develop “a computer network that would survive a nuclear attack.”

Because in wartime, it is difficult to rescue and transfer physical data storage devices between computing centres, the idea of connecting remote computers which could share data through “packet switching” was developed by Paul Baran, a Polish immigrant in the USA. This led to the development of ARPANET, the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network.

It is not difficult to guess what kind of “strategic assets” we developed during the Cold War even though we were, and still are in some way, allies of the West. The industries and knowledge systems that the USA developed during the Cold War have connected the globe and everybody is using it. Instead of collaborating in the emerging fields of knowledge production, we got the funds and weapons to become ideologically-loaded proxy fighters. This shows what a ‘visionary’ Ziaul Haq was.

This is still our way of dealing with technological changes. We, as a nation, have been trying to control the Internet while other nations transform the way the world communicates. The world is shifting from carbonisation to decarbonisation and technology companies are leading this change by shifting to renewable energy while we are busy upholding our ideology developed during the Cold War. In 2008, Exxon was the richest firm in the USA. In 2018, the richest firm is Apple.

But our last decade looks like this: in 2008, the PTA banned YouTube briefly and then banned it again in 2010 and then reopened it after 3 years. In 2010, Pakistan banned Wikipedia, Facebook, Flickr, and several other social media platforms. In 2013, Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary laboratory based at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, revealed that Pakistani authorities were using Netsweeper to block URLs.

According to the Citizen Lab report on the use of Netsweeper in Pakistan, the government had acquired the ability to monitor and block 10 million URLs on a daily basis. Another revelation that came in 2013 from the Citizen Lab was that Pakistan was one of the 36 countries using FinFisher — the software has the capacity to harvest email and website passwords, monitor chats, listen to Skype calls, covertly turn on the microphone and camera, and copy files from the computer of the targeted user.

These surveillance capabilities of governments have also been revealed by Snowden (movies Citizenfour and Snowden dramatise these practices). In 2015, Pakistani authorities demanded backdoor access to Blackberry’s encrypted messaging service. The company refused to provide a universal backdoor access but was willing to work with the government on case-to-case basis. The company had to leave Pakistan by the end of 2015. In 2016, Pakistan enacted the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act which gives the government censorship and surveillance powers without any oversight on government’s invasion of the privacy of citizens.

The above-mentioned government actions and capabilities demonstrate how some institutions of the state in Pakistan work to undermine the protections provided by the Constitution of Pakistan, such as freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of information, freedom of religion, freedom of association, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly.

Another interesting legal problem with spying on computers located in the home of a citizen is that Article 14 of the Constitution of Pakistan safeguards human dignity: “The dignity of man and, subject to law, the privacy of home, shall be inviolable.” It is for because of these fundamental rights that a police team cannot enter a home without obtaining a search warrant first.

Also read: Forbidden targets

Even a sitting prime minister cannot transgress against this fundamental right of the citizens of Pakistan. Violating this constitutional right (governmental tapping phones of judges and political opponents) was one of the reasons cited by Chief Justice Sajjad Ali Shah when he declared the dismissal of Benazir Bhutto’s government by President Farooq Leghari a legally justified act.

The internet is a new iteration of the public sphere and online users have the same legal protections that are available to them offline. The time has come to extend the vision of Quaid-i-Azam to the digital age: the citizens are free; they are free to go to their online temples, they are free to go to their online mosques or to any other place of online assembly in this State of Pakistan. They may visit any internet domain that has nothing to do with the business of the State.

Saeed Ur Rehman

Saeed ur Rehman
The author believes all human collectives are oppressive in some ways and uses writing to create tiny fissures of freedom whenever and wherever possible.

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