NEW DELHI :Though Imran Khan has been raising the issue of internet shutdown in Kashmir, it is Pakistan that has emerged as the biggest enforcer of internet censorship in the Asian region in the last few years.
Multiple research reports and studies, that have been conducted in recent times, have not only shown how frequently Pakistan resorts to total internet censorship, but have also shown that it now has one of the most extensive surveillance systems in place, that rivals the US’ National Secretary Agency (NSA), to monitor internet activity of its citizens. This system that is being used by the Inter-services Intelligence (ISI) since 2005 is also used to keep an eye on members of the judiciary and politicians, which perhaps explains the total surrender of political entities to the demands of ISI.
As per various research reports, media reports and data collected through Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), that The Sunday Guardian went through, internet shutdown for at least more than one day across Pakistan, including Islamabad, was put in place for over 52 times in the last six years. This does not include the total internet shutdown in Balochistan, where it was suspended in February 2017 and FATA region where the internet shutdown is in effect since June 2016.
The prolonged internet shutdown in Balochistan, that has been called the “great internet shutdown” by watchers of internet freedom, has failed to attract any attention from the international media.
Experts define internet shutdowns as intentional disconnections of digital communications by government authorities to achieve “communication rupture”.
Balochistan-based individuals told The Sunday Guardian that the internet shutdown was “total” in most areas. The Information and Cultural Secretary of the Baloch National Movement (BNM), Dil Murad Baloch, said that major parts of Balochistan were facing internet shutdown. “It started in 2015 with some regions, now it has engulfed almost the entire region. The shutdown is total in the region that surrounds the road network of CPEC that comes under Balochistan. No national or international media has reported on this despite it being in effect for years now,” he said.
As per a study done by Ben Wagner, who teaches at Vienna University of Economics and Business, Austria , which he published in 2017 in his report titled, “Understanding Internet Shutdowns: A Case Study from Pakistan”, Pakistan had carried out the maximum internet shutdown in the recent past.
“No other country can even come close to the 41 internet shutdowns Pakistan has witnessed in the past five years. Shutdowns have become so common that they are (now) an established part of precautionary measures taken within the security apparatus. For example, to prepare for celebrations around Defense Day in Pakistan on 6 September 2016, the government decided to shut down communications in the capital city not just on the day itself, but also as a precaution during the preparations on 5 September 2016. Similar precautions were taken for the ceremony celebrating the Change of Command for the chief of the Army staff in Rawalpindi on 29 November 2016, where mobile phone and internet services were shut down in the entire city as a security precaution,” according to the study.
Wagner’s study showed that Pakistan was shutting off internet at every possible pretext. He found that Pakistan was shutting down internet for broadly five reasons:
1. Celebrations around national political holidays, like Pakistan Day or Independence Day.
2. Celebrations around religious holidays, like Ashura or Eid ul-Fitr.
3. Large political marches, strikes, or sit-ins, typically in the capital city Islamabad or Rawalpindi, but also elsewhere in the country.
4. High-level political events, such as the visit of the Chinese prime minister or the Change of Command in the Armed Forces.
5. Perceived security threats.
He further found that Pakistan uses internet shutdown less for “strategically preventing mobilization”, but more for a “disciplinary tool of authoritarian repression”. Wagner carried out multiple field trips to reach at his findings and interacted with current and former government officials, members of civil society, NGOs and representatives of private sector companies.
This clampdown becomes more disturbing when one considers that only 35% of the total Pakistan’s population uses internet, which is roughly 7 crore compared to India where a whopping 52% of the population or 70 crore people use internet.
A surveillance state
Pakistan has also raced ahead of most countries when it comes to keeping an eye on its citizens.
A July 2015 report, titled, “Tipping the scales: Security & surveillance in Pakistan”, that was prepared by Privacy International, a London-based organisation, which was based on sensitive documents that it had access to, revealed the extent of illegal internet surveillance that Pakistan had been carrying out.
“This report reveals for the first time some of the previously unknown surveillance capacities of the Pakistani government. It also finds that the practical capacity of the Pakistani government, particularly the ISI, now outstrips the capacity of domestic and international law for effective regulation of that surveillance.”
The surveillance was being handled by the all-pervasive ISI and it targeted journalists, lawyers, activists and politicians since 2005.
The report revealed that in 2013, the ISI commissioned a mass surveillance system to tap international undersea cables at three cable landing sites in southern Pakistan which would allow it to collect and analyse a significant portion of communications traveling within and through the country at a centralized command center. The system was projected to intake 660 gigabytes of data per second.
“This system would make available virtually all of the nation’s domestic and international communications data for scrutiny, the most significant expansion of the government’s capacity to conduct mass surveillance to date. The total intake of data every second would rival some of the world’s most powerful surveillance programmed, including the UK’s ‘Tempora’ and US’ ‘Upstream’ programmes,” the report stated.
As per the report, the Pakistani government obtained this technology from both domestic and foreign surveillance companies including Alcatel, Ericsson, Huawei, SS8 and Utimaco.
“Pakistan cooperates heavily with international surveillance initiatives against its own citizens, particularly those led by the US National Security Agency (NSA). The Pakistani government is by far the largest known recipient of NSA funds. Pakistan is also one of the NSA’s approved third party SIGINT partners. Being a third party partner means that the NSA considers the relationship a long-term one involving ‘higher degrees of trust’ and ‘greater levels of cooperation’ such that the NSA would be ‘willing to share advanced techniques…in return for that partner’s willingness to do something politically risky’. A third party partner can expect to receive ‘technical solutions (e.g. hardware or software) and/or access to related technology’,” the report further stated.
As per the report, the NSA maintained a “special collection service” at its embassy and consulates in Pakistan. In 2008, it maintained at least one server in Pakistan for its programme XKeyscore, which searches and analyses intercepted data. Under the Boundless Informant programme, the NSA collected over 97 billion pieces of intelligence globally over a 30-day period ending in March 2013. Within this, Pakistan had the highest number of intercepted DNR (dialed number recognition) and second highest number of intercepted DNI (dialed number identification). Pakistan also featured strongly in the NSA’s Fair view programme. Fairview is a mass surveillance programme designed to collect phone, internet and e-mail data in bulk from the computers and mobile telephones of foreign countries’ citizens. In one month in 2012, for instance, the NSA analysed 11.7 billion records of DNI traffic into and out of Pakistan.
“A June 2012 NSA document recently published shows that the NSA, through its SKYNET programme, harvested call data from Pakistani telecommunications providers and 55 million phone records were fed into an NSA analysis system for an analysis exercise. Known ISI agents were tracked in this experiment as well as an Al Jazeera journalist who was misidentified as being a member of Al Qaeda,” the same report stated.
Some of the details of the Pakistan’s surveillance capabilities came to the fore after Pakistan’s networks were targeted by the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) of United Kingdom. In 2010, a joint unit of NSA and GCHQ hacked the world’s largest producer of SIM cards, Gemalto. The breach, detailed in a secret 2010 GCHQ document, gave the surveillance agencies the potential to secretly monitor a large portion of the world’s cellular communications, including both voice and data.
GCHQ successfully identified the identifying information of tens of thousands of SIM cards in a number of countries. However, GCHQ’s automated key harvesting system failed to produce results against Pakistani networks.
“This is despite there being ‘priority targets’ for the UK in Pakistan, and despite the fact that GCHQ had a store of ‘Kis’ keys from two major Pakistani providers, Mobilink and Telenor.”
As per UK-based Intelligence officials, the Pakistani government is also a confirmed user of intrusion technologies which enable the remote hacking of targeted devices, a claim that was also confirmed by the report prepared by Privacy International.
“Intrusion technologies are capable of collecting, modifying and extracting all data communicated and stored on a device. Malware provides its operator with extraordinary access to an individual target’s computer. They can view an individual’s actions in real time on their computer, enabling the user to records passwords, and even impersonate the target; sending out e-mails and Facebook messages as the target, for example. The user can also use the trojan to turn on the camera and microphone on a target’s computer, thereby seeing and hearing everything in the vicinity of the target’s computer, without the target ever being aware. Due to their staggering monitoring capabilities, intrusion technologies are eagerly sought, bought and used by repressive regimes worldwide,” stated the report while commenting on Pakistan’s use of illegal spy techniques.
Special thanks to Sunday guardian live