Pakistan to monitor all communications, ban Blackberry's encrypted messaging

Pakistan plans vast expansion of government mass surveillance capabilities with the aim of capturing all communications entering and within the country.

According to a report, “Tipping the Scales: Surveillance and security in Pakistan,” published by Privacy International last week, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) initially called for a complete surveillance system to monitor “all international IP [internet protocol] traffic….at three landing and two satellite IPLCs [International Private Leased Circuits] sites…..”

“We need to know whether this project was approved, and if so how it is being regulated to prevent abuse of such a powerful system,” comments Matthew Rice, advocacy officer, Privacy International, noting that the ISI plan dates back to 2013. He adds, “This new report is a revelation in understanding (of Pakistan's surveillance ambitions),” and notes, “Pakistan's intelligence agencies are not grounded in legislation, it is unclear who has the power to oversee their actions or evaluate proposed projects.”

ISI specified to contractors - including China, Finland, France, Germany, Sweden, and the United States - that interception “must not be detectable or visible to the subscriber” and allow future expansion. The plans cover all mobile communications data, including Wi-Fi, all broadband internet traffic and any data transmitted over 3G networks.

Most contracting companies' countries require them to only supply networks in countries whose procedures are lawful interception-compliant. However, Privacy International's report says that the legal framework governing communications interception and surveillance in Pakistan fails to effectively regulate the practices in line with Pakistan's domestic and international commitments to protect privacy as a fundamental right.

Last Friday Reuters reported that Pakistan's Telecommunication Authority gave three of the largest mobile phone Mobilink, Ufone, and Telenor Pakistan providers 90 days to shut down BlackBerry's encrypted messaging service (BES) in the country by 30th November latest. The move, which will hit some 4,000 to 5,000 users, is at the behest of the interior ministry “due to security reasons,” according to PTA spokesman Khurram Mehran talking to The Express Tribune.

BlackBerry spokesperson Kara Yi was reported by ZDNet as saying: “While we recognise the need to cooperate with lawful government investigative requests of criminal activity, we have never permitted wholesale access to our BES servers."

BlackBerry services were banned in the UAE and Saudi Arabia in 2010, then reinstated with restrictions; India and Indonesia have restricted usage, and the UK reportedly considered a ban on the messaging service during the 2011 riots and has subsequently called for encryption back-doors, as has the US.  At the time of going to press there was no suggestion that encrypted mobile messaging services were to be banned in Pakistan, however, encrypted app Telegram has been attacked in Asia Pacific this month, and governments globally are concerned at their inability to monitor encrypted communications. 

Meanwhile privacy proponents are introducing new services such as Hornet, reported on today in SC.