Big Brother wants access to your Gmail account

Published: September 19, 2011

The writer is web editor of The Express Tribune and tweets @Jhaque_ (jahanzaib.haque@tribune.com.pk)

Nothing should terrify us more than picturing an intelligence flunky, scrolling through that email we took four hours composing to our loved one or business partner.

In an ongoing series of impingement of basic right and freedom online, the Pakistani government is now considering the possibility of banning Google and YouTube in Pakistan, because as our interior minister puts it, these sites are being used by terrorists for communication. Additionally, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) has directed all internet service providers (ISPs) and telcos to ban internet encryption in the name of national security. Add to this, Section 54 of the Pakistan Telecommunication Act that allows the government to authorise any individual or agency to intercept/trace calls and messages in “the interest of national security or in the apprehension of any offence” and you have the makings of a police state. (Note the ambiguous keyword “any offence”.) Last but not the least, ISPs have also been asked to assist in the monitoring of all internet traffic.

The government believes that this is the right way to go about tackling terrorists, by keeping track and monitoring their online communications and activities. And while the average Pakistani may be helpless in the face of this atrocious ‘Big brother’ state-condoned monitoring, rest assured, those terrorists that are actually under threat by such activity have already found their way around it. To help visualise this, it is somewhat analogous to how citizens are harassed at security checkpoints daily, yet suicide bombers are able to get around them. To quote our own government representatives when they fail to stop yet another terrorist act — it is next to impossible to prevent this activity; better nations have tried and failed. Internet monitoring is a complex task that requires vast amounts of resources, know-how and targeted action, along with systems for accountability, and I shudder to think of the mess that is being created right now. All the government is actually doing — by condoning this across-the-board banning of sites and monitoring in cyberspace — is stepping on the rights of its citizens, and impinging on their freedom of information and expression, and privacy.

To sum it up, this means that one’s ‘secure’ bank account transactions are now vulnerable and accessible. This means very personal information; the emails, pictures and words exchanged in private for business, or with a loved one, are soon or perhaps already opened for browsing by a government official/intelligence agency, or, heaven forbid, someone who has a grudge against you and has good contacts.

Is all of this justified in the name of national security? No it is not, especially as it does not work. Is banning Google and YouTube a solution? Is this how the internet is monitored in other countries? No it is not. To cite a relevant section of a recent report by Article 19 (international group monitoring censorship) and Bytes for All (local internet freedom advocacy group):

“Article 19 and Bytes for All remind the PTA that under international legal standards, restriction of the right to freedom of expression for reasons of national security must meet certain conditions known as the ‘three-part test’ developed by the UN Human Rights Committee. National security cannot be used as a pretext for imposing vague or arbitrary limitations…. [E]xpression may be regarded as a threat to national security only if a government can demonstrate that the expression is intended to incite imminent violence; it is likely to incite such violence; and there is a direct and immediate connection between the expression and the likelihood or occurrence of such violence. These and other requirements are therefore not met.”

For the sake of our Gmail accounts, we need to wake up and demand that this ludicrous form of internet monitoring and site banning be stopped. It is time for the government to reach out to concerned groups and develop a system for monitoring and targeting of terror suspects that is agreed upon by its citizens, and one that follows international standards. Demanding anything less is a slippery slope to foregoing other rights that you take for granted.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 20th,  2011.

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Reader Comments (24)

  • N
    Sep 19, 2011 - 9:03PM

    Every breath you take
    Every move you make
    Every email you create
    Every step you take
    I’ll be watching you

    Every single day
    Every word you say
    Every facebook account you play
    Every night you stay
    I’ll be watching you

    (Police – Lyrics Adapted)

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  • NP
    Sep 19, 2011 - 9:31PM

    How they can get access to our Gmail accounts, anyone who can explain for a layperson? Thanks for this post, Jahanzaib.

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  • Shah Zalmay Khan
    Sep 19, 2011 - 9:37PM

    Cant agree more with that. Recommend

  • Mudassar.R
    Sep 19, 2011 - 10:04PM

    Mr Writer, you are right but see, if with this new security, even if one life can be saved, I think we must implement it….
    sounds filmy? what if it is your own life, which will be saved by these measures? whole world feels useless ,right…..

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  • Mudassar.R
    Sep 19, 2011 - 10:06PM

    I think Interior minister needs to take classes,,,,Govt should check all such things but these are not things to be mentioned in front of media,,,just like a kid who has got something, keeps on boosting in front of others, that I have this and will do that,,,but actually cant do anything,,,,so is our Interior minitser

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  • Adnan Khan
    Sep 19, 2011 - 11:10PM

    You have chosen to argue against this potential ban, from the most weakest angle.
    .
    There are always exigent circumstances which demand that a Govt take extra-ordinary steps to combat an immediate and present threat. Even in America, with their Bill of Rights, the Patriot Act was introduced and sailed through Congress in record time. Take Britain, Israel or any other country which has faced terrorism and they have all instituted so-called “black” laws, which encroach on their citizen’s civil liberties.
    .
    The point that you should have raised, against such bans, is that. . . they don’t work!
    .
    Pakistan is currently facing a large scale psy-op/propaganda war. An international smear campaign, to malign all 180 million people as raving loons, blood-thirsty savages, bent on destroying the world with nukes. Instead of taking this media onslaught head-on and provide an alternative narrative to the world, our Govt wants to make us blind and deaf. While we are being attacked and vilified all over the world, they want to keep this nation in the dark about it. Allow the enemies of Pakistan, to strike at will, bludgeon us into the ground, instead of allowing us to respond lies with truth. To tell our side of the story to those who would paint us all in one brush.
    .
    Rehman Malik & Co., unable to defend this country on any front, is now trying to blindfold and handcuff this nation of 180 million strong. Pakistan’s enemies would love nothing better.
    .
    .
    Adnan Khan

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  • saeed ahmad
    Sep 20, 2011 - 12:35AM

    Makes no difference. Already FBI & CIA has secured complete access to everything with help of Microsoft…my dears…!

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  • John B
    Sep 20, 2011 - 1:05AM

    What next. Raid news paper offices to get the address of its subscribers.? How banning gmail and you tube access will restrict terrorists communication is beyond comprehension unless whole Internet access is banned in Pakistan.

    After few months, PAK gov will kill all pegions also because they can be potentially used for messaging.

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  • Meekal Ahmed
    Sep 20, 2011 - 1:31AM

    I think the government has a case but they will, as suggested, over do it and over-step the bounds of prudence and make an awful hash of things.

    I was suprised on a recent visit to Turkey, a dynamic and progressive Muslim country, that there was no YouTube. When I asked my sister’s son-in-law who is Turkish, he had no reply.

    I shudder to think that with a name like Ahmed I must be monitored all the time in “the land of the free and the home of the brave”!

    I think many (perhaps only some so I stand to be corrected) countries have banned YouTube and many (perhaps all) monitor e-mail traffic. This is the reality of a post-9/11 world as much as we may hate it.

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  • vickram
    Sep 20, 2011 - 1:52AM

    @NP:

    A guy from ISI or Police dept visits your house and accuses you of a crime. Then he demands your mail id and password, so that your innocence/guilt can be established.

    what you will do?

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  • Sep 20, 2011 - 3:38AM

    I don’t see why anyone is surprised by this. This government has done everything possible to silence the voices of the people, while giving the terrorists more and more victories. There was even a story in another Pakistani daily that the LHC had ordered Facebook to be blocked for blasphemous content. Sadly, the only people that are hurt by these draconian measures are the hard working Pakistanis that use technology to support their families and provide jobs for the people who work with them.

    I fully agree with Jahanzaib – somehow terrorists get past all the police checkposts. They communicate with each other via illegal cell phone SIMs. And somehow manage to post their messages on jihadi websites. Maybe the government of Pakistan should focus on blocking the illegal SIMs, rather than going after the technology that many use for their sustenance. Maybe they should focus on bringing quality police officers into the police ranks that have no allegiances to the terrorists so that they are unable to get past the checkposts. Maybe they should focus on governance rather than making tall claims about “fool-proof” security only to have another terrorist attack succeed in Pakistan.

    The courts and the government have failed to combat terrorism. The courts are afraid to convict and sentence terrorists to jail or death (reference Mumtaz Qadri – assassin of Salman Taseer) because they don’t want to become the next target of attack. The police are unable to stop the spread of arms and hate messages in Pakistan because the electronic media put these politicians on television to speak against other parties, ethnic groups and religious groups in the name of higher ratings for talk shows.

    Sadly, the terrorists are winning more and more ground each day, as innocent Pakistanis live more and more in fear of what rights they will lose next.

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  • Kashif
    Sep 20, 2011 - 4:53AM

    Terrorists can use other Internet services to communicate with each other. I don’t think it’s really a cool idea to ban a specific website.

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  • No Spin Facts
    Sep 20, 2011 - 9:42AM

    Ha! If you think Google and Facebook are free from spooks, you’re misinformed. The American spooks are already monitoring everything baked in through agreements in the initial Venture Capital deals for these companies. Consequently, China is aggressively blocking Google and Facebook. Rest assured that the same is the case for Yahoo and Microsoft. Your personal privacy went out the door when you agreed to the “terms and conditions” of these CIA & NSA sponsored entities. The Patriot Act in the United States is the legal cover. The same is the case for your mobile communication as there are many back end deals through agency sponsored funds that invest in middle-ware companies.

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  • Haider Hussain
    Sep 20, 2011 - 9:57AM

    @N:
    lolzz…Good one!!

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  • ahmed saeed
    Sep 20, 2011 - 12:27PM

    Don’t know really how many Pakistanis will suffer after shutting down these sites. But Govt for sure has no nefarious designs, in your article you should have suggested clamping down on pornographic sites which are damaging our youth significantly.

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  • Lawyered
    Sep 20, 2011 - 1:13PM

    Actually, Section 31 of the PTA describes the list of offences. Its not really that ambiguous.

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  • Alsahdiq
    Sep 20, 2011 - 1:50PM

    A day will come when they will resort to banning people breathing i.e. inhaling and exhaling air.
    Why? The victims of European terrorism also breath.

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  • Judas Priest
    Sep 20, 2011 - 2:28PM

    Up here in space
    I’m looking down on you.
    My lasers trace
    Everything you do.
    You think you’ve private lives
    Think nothing of the kind.
    There is no true escape

    I’m watching all the time.
    I’m made of metal
    My circuits gleam.
    I am perpetual
    I keep the country clean.

    I’m elected electric spy
    I protected electric eye.
    Always in focus
    You can’t feel my stare.
    I zoom into you
    You don’t know I’m there.
    I take a pride in probing all your secret moves
    My tearless retina takes pictures that can prove.

    Electric eye, in the sky
    Feel my stare, always there
    ‘s nothing you can do about it.
    Develop and expose
    I feed upon your every thought
    And so my power grows.
    Protected. Detective. Electric eye.

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  • My Rights
    Sep 20, 2011 - 2:38PM

    I am totally against so called Malik statement…..if he is failed to his service he must not break the privacy of individual, family and its totally against Human rights. He should resign and leave playing double game…If the so called govt. does this, it will severely damage the career of new generation who using such facilities on own expenses for jobs/career, education, research and information. E-mails, net contacts, family and personal matter are our right and Islam give us right of protection, privacy…..who is he to disclose once privacy and personal matter with such doubted career and who can trust….. His suggestions always create more problems then solving. Pakistani Nation must totally condemn such statements otherwise there will be no privacy even at homes. Further he should comment and take care of flood and other crisis (electricity, food, Dunge, basic human needs, jobs and distracting role of corrupt politicians, corruption, good governance etc). Recommend

  • Sep 21, 2011 - 5:31AM

    If the government thinks that internet is used to communicate by terrorists(who are dumb and do not know the other way around cough Proxies cough) then instead of banning the websites improve the whole security system! help the ISP’s!!!! Invest in them!!! Improve the PTI!!!

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  • Sep 21, 2011 - 5:34AM

    What dumb explanation is that only google is used for terrorist communication?? havent they heard of msn? hotmail? twitter? bing? i think zardari wants his 10% share from google pakistan -.-

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  • Sep 21, 2011 - 12:34PM

    It’s a stupid idea anyway to block any website.
    It’s funny how it’s said that terrorist use the Internet to communicate with each other. Does that mean that Malik thinks that google and youtube IS internet?
    Instead of you know, actually going after terrorists, they’re going after Google? Really? What’s next? Turning off the internet? Recommend

  • HAmmad
    Sep 21, 2011 - 2:06PM

    Use proxy servers, once which are free and use 256bit encryption.

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  • HST
    Sep 28, 2011 - 1:16AM

    Although blocking google/youtube/facebook is liking making kitchen knives illegal just because someone decided to chop a person instead. Rest assured, mr. author and others who don’t dig too much into technology (that includes PTA sadly), gmail and facebook and even skype conversations can never be picked up in mid air. Almost all major email providers communicate through our computers with encryptions in place so unless there is a special arrangement between the provider (Google, Facebook, Microsoft etc. ) and the government to release the data pertaining to an identified individual, there is no way rehman malik can steal this information. I don’t think computer guys at PTA are talented enough to break into multi-million dollar encryption projects. I mean have you ever looked at the layouts of our government websites. Takes me back to 1996.

    A computer security guy.

    p.s. For facebook users, your login is already encrypted. To make your entire facebook session encrypted, you have to set is manually. Go to Home->Account Settings->Security->Secure Browsing and edit this option to enable SSL/TSL based encryption.

    As for terrorists, they’ll find a way anyhow. This is not the way to go for sure. Did a ban on pillion rider (double swari) had any effect on killings in Karachi? You get the point.

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