Uzair M. Younus on role of surveillance in U.S.-Pakistan relationship

Unchecked surveillance

By: Uzair M. Younus


It was a little over three years ago that Edward Snowden first contacted Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras. The subsequent leak of thousands of classified documents, extracted during Snowden’s time at the National Security Agency (NSA), unveiled a global surveillance system of epic proportions. The revelations caused tremors around the world and highlighted how citizens’ privacy was being violated by intelligence agencies.

The unchecked expansion of surveillance capabilities was made possible by rapid technological advancements and the political and social desire to combat the threats posed by extremists in the post-9/11 world. Militarily, Pakistan became a frontline state shortly after the United States decided to invade Afghanistan. Given this reality, it was no surprise that the NSA also turned its eyes on Pakistan, both to seek assistance from the country’s intelligence agencies and to gather intelligence by penetrating the secure communications networks of Pakistan’s civilian, and perhaps also the military leadership before its networks were upgraded and made fully secure.

Documents leaked by Snowden revealed that over the years, NSA hackers have used multiple offensive cyber weapons. One such offensive tool was called SECONDDATE and it was used to intercept and redirect web traffic from targeted computers to NSA servers. These servers would then infect the targeted computers with malware that allowed the NSA to monitor them. The leaks confirmed that SECOND­DATE was used to penetrate “targets in Pakistan’s National Telecommunications Corpora­tion’s (NTC) VIP Division” which is “the backbone of Pakistan’s Green Line communications network” used by the country’s civilian and military leadership.

The relationship between the US and Pakistan has been tumultuous and the two countries can be considered ‘frenemies’. The US gave Pakistan billions of dollars in civilian and military aid while also viewing the country’s leadership with suspicion and at times hostility. This pattern continued in the cyber domain as well. As it infected Pakistan’s secure communications channels with malware, the NSA also approved the country as a third party SIGINT partner, which basically meant that Pakistan’s relationship with the NSA involved a “higher degree of trust” and that it would be “willing to share advanced techniques” and “technical solutions (eg hardware or software) and/or access to related technology”. Under this partnership Pakistan became the largest recipient of NSA funds in the world, receiving almost twice as much money as second-ranked Jordan in 2012.

According to Privacy International, in 2010, the German government allowed German companies to export “monitoring technology and spyware software” worth 3.9 million euros. Companies from Switzerland exported surveillance technologies worth one million Swiss francs, while Finnish companies were also granted permits to export monitoring equipment to Pakistan.

It was on the back of this expanded access that Pakistan’s intelligence agencies sought to expand their surveillance powers in Pakistan. According to Privacy International, one of the agencies sent out a secret request for proposals in 2013 that would monitor “all international IP traffic” including mobile communications data, broadband internet data, and data transmitted over Wi-Fi and 3G networks. Whether such a system was successfully implemented is not known, but a small fraction of the agency’s capabilities was made public in 2015: in a report submitted to the Supreme Court, the agency noted that it had intercepted 26,940 phone calls during the period February-May 2015.

Rather than overseeing and controlling the growth of the surveillance capacity, on Aug 11, 2016, the current government passed the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act. Under this law, investigative officers have been given the authority to demand access to data and issue retroactive warrants for access to data, including decrypting encrypted information. This gave intelligence agencies and their agents broad powers to collect data, all but guaranteeing that citizens would not have any means to protect their privacy.

The Finance Bill 2014 exempted intelligence agencies from financial oversight by the office of the auditor general of Pakistan. This means that parliament and its oversight committees, which are duty-bound to provide oversight of how public money is spent, have virtually no insight, even in secret, into the black budgets and slush funds that are ultimately used for the procurement and expansion of surveillance systems.

It is true that Pakistan has been fighting a long and bloody war against enemies residing within and outside its sovereign boundaries. Given the nature of this fight, it is necessary that intelligence agencies have access to state-of-the-art technology to proactively hit the enemy. That necessity, however, should not be allowed to violate the citizenry’s right to privacy and the oversight of intelligence agencies.

As the pace of technological advancement accelerates, the tools of surveillance will continue to become more sophisticated and intrusive. To ensure that surveillance powers are checked, and rolled back where they violate the Constitution, parliament, the judiciary, the intelligence agencies, and the media must work together. Parliament must vociferously legislate to set boundaries on what intelligence agencies can and cannot do. It must also effectively monitor and audit intelligence agencies to ensure that taxpayer money is accounted for.

The judiciary must actively build up its capacity to not only understand modern surveillance technologies and provide judicial oversight, but also strongly penalise intelligence agencies when they violate the Constitution. The media must play its role in educating the masses about their constitutional rights and highlight the surveillance systems active in Pakistan today.

Finally, intelligence agencies must realise that while increased oversight and scrutiny will restrict their operational capabilities to an extent, it will pay dividends by building public trust in the critical work that they do to safeguard the lives of millions of Pakistanis.

Pakistan is a transitional democracy and a fundamentally flawed one at that. To iron out the wrinkles in this setup, all institutions must work together to put in place processes that allow each to fulfil its constitutional duties while ensuring that fundamental rights enshrined are not violated. It is only when this happens that Pakistan will truly become a democracy.