Tuesday 15 December 2015

SumVoices: Unauthorized Access to Private Data Common in Pakistan

Our last installment of SumVoices featured Algerian journalist Rim Hayat Chaif, in English and Arabic. This week we bring you the insight of Fahad Desmukh, journalist and digital human rights activist with Bytes for All, Pakistan.

Fahad Desmukh, SumVoices, Pakistan, BlackBerry, digital privacy, government surveillanceWe welcome Blackberry's decision to walk away from the Pakistani market rather than compromise the privacy of its Pakistani customers. The open and frank announcement by Blackberry gave Pakistanis an idea of the extents to which our government is going to get unauthorised access to our private data. However, it has hardly caused any ripples within the country for a number of reasons.

First, we already know that the government is doing all it can to get access to our private data by the fact that it has pushed legislation such as the "Fair Trial Act" of 2013 and the upcoming cyber crime bill ("Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill") which formalises the procedure for law enforcement agencies to surveil citizens and mandates mobile and Internet service providers to share customer data. Second, we have reason to believe that the government has already acquired intrusive surveillance software such as Finfisher, and has sought to set up a mass surveillance system which would tap the fibre optic cables that carry the bulk of network communication data to, from and through Pakistan.

So the desire and, to some degree, capability of Pakistani authorities to monitor our private information comes as no surprise. In fact, even as far back as 2011, it was clear that the authorities wanted to block Blackberry's encrypted traffic in Pakistan.

For the average Pakistani mobile and Internet user, Blackberry's suspension of services will not have a huge impact because, for one, there are not that many Blackberry users in the country any more. And even those who still rely on Blackberry's services for private encrypted communication will find that there are plenty of alternatives, some which are arguably more secure. Here we can mention the encrypted messaging app Signal for Android and iOS which is notable because it is free and open source software, meaning that the design blueprints for the app are publicly available and can be audited for security by anyone who understands the code. The end-to-end encryption offered by Signal means that no one other than the sender and recipient can decrypt the messages -- even the makers of Signal themselves. Signal is just one of a number of alternatives to Blackberry's encrypted messaging.

Finally, we should also state that while we welcome Blackberry's stance towards protecting the privacy of its customers in Pakistan, we also want to encourage it to consider applying the same principled position towards its customers in other countries, such as India, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, where it has reportedly made agreements with law enforcement agencies to share some level of data of its Blackberry Enterprise Service customers.

Bytes for All, Pakistan focuses on the intersection of human rights and Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). Desmukh leads PakVoices, a Bytes for All project that seeks to bring greater transparency and accountability to governance in marginalized regions of Pakistan by promoting the flow of information within those regions, and by highlighting the most pressing local issues in national media outlets.

A quick glance at Freedom House's 2015 Freedom on the Net Pakistan report reveals a dire situation: Pakistan boasts a 14% Internet penetration rate, blocks platforms such as YouTube and was referred to as "one of the world's most dangerous countries for traditional journalists." For further explanation, take a look at our report on the factors that led to BlackBerry's Pakistan exit, including the troubled Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB).  

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