South Asia

Pakistan has built a massive surveillance state: report

Pakistan has stealthily built up a surveillance network that “would rival some of the world’s most powerful surveillance programmes,” according to a report released this week by a London-based privacy advocacy group, and it may have done so by trampling over legally sanctioned limits on surveillance, including phone taps, spy software deployment, and the monitoring of internet service providers.

While the report titled “Tipping the Scales: Surveillance and Security in Pakistan,” by Privacy International did not indicate that any direct surveillance targets were in India, a charge that the report made which raised eyebrows was that Pakistan's Directorate of Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) was developing a system to directly access undersea fibre-optic cables to intercept worldwide web traffic.

This revelation in particular set alarm bells ringing because a key hub of the 885,000 kilometre-long underwater global cable system is based in Karachi and if in theory the ISI could tap the cables, it may have access to vast troves of private data, including from other nations.

The report noted, “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.”

A number of foreign entities and several foreign governments appeared to be complicit in the apparent spying excesses of the Pakistani state, including surveillance equipment suppliers such as Ericsson of Sweden, Alcatel of France, Huawei of China, SS8 of the U.S., and Utimac of Germany.

Based on confidential documents obtained by Privacy International and not seen before, the report said that Germany had authorised four million euros worth of software licenses for “monitoring technology and spyware software.”

Similarly the ISI appeared to have deep and extensive cooperation with the U.S. National Security Agency, whose global mass surveillance programmes such as Prism came to be publicly known after whistle-blower Edward Snowden leaked top-secret NSA documents to the press in June 2013.

The “Tipping the Scales” report said that Pakistan is one of the NSA’s “approved third party SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) partners,” and this implied that the NSA considered 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 Pakistan’s willingness to do something politically risky.”

Accordingly the U.S. maintained a “special collection service” at its embassy and consulates in Pakistan, including at least one server in 2008 for its notorious XKeyscore programme, which searches and analyses intercepted data.

Additionally the NSA under its Boundless Informant programme collected over 97 billion pieces of intelligence globally over a 30-day period ending in March 2013, and within this, Pakistan had the highest number of intercepted DNR (dialed number recognition) and second highest number of intercepted DNI (dialed number identification).

The list of specific programmes under which there was cooperation between the ISI on the one hand and the NSA and the U.K.’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) on the other is a long on, according to the report, and includes some such as Fairview and SKYNET.

Last month it emerged that GCHQ had hacked into the Pakistan Internet Exchange, a national hub of transfer for a significant portion of communications, giving the British spy agency “access to almost any user of the internet” inside Pakistan.

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Printable version | Nov 25, 2021 4:40:24 PM |

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