Investigators dealing with cyber crimes have found themselves paralysed since the Prevention of Electronic Crime Ordinance (PECO) lapsed in November 2009 and this comes at a time when usage of electronic modes is growing quite rapidly, according to a senior official of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA).
“This is similar to cutting off our right hand and leaving us to deal with cyber crime in a paralysed state.
Criminals are running amok,“ said the official, requesting anonymity.
“We had been dealing with corporate sector crimes, financial fraud, email phishing and other similar attacks through electronic medium, but these are now up for grabs and we are unable to do anything.“
“Without PECO, we are using Electronic Transaction Ordinance (ETO) as a backup, but the law is not very significant for courts and our trials start at the Judicial Magistrate level. The trial drags on for ages because the case grade is low and people often get away with the crime,“ said the official.
Citing the case of a foreign exchange company, the official said that the money changer's lawyers filed for relief, taking advantage of the lapse of the ordinance and the court granted it.
However, the official said this was not the main issue, as the major hurdle comes in dealing with mobile cellular operators. These companies claim they are no longer bound to provide information to FIA and insist it should come through the Intelligence Bureau (IB), which takes a month during which the criminal is able to find an escape route.
In the absence of PECO, the National Response Centre for Cyber Crimes (NR3C) is trying to help victims wherever it can. An NR3C official said the centre has ways to help people and is using Sections 36 and 37 of the Electronic Transaction Ordinance (ETO), introduced in 2002, which deal with violation of privacy information and damage to information systems.
Another official praised the work FIA had been doing, pointing out that Rs61 million had been recovered by NR3C units during investigations into different cases.
NR3C, which according to sources is going to expire, played a crucial role during a hacking war that broke out between Indian and Pakistani hackers some time ago. It also helped arrest a man for alleged involvement in hacking websites of prominent personalities, including President Asif Ali Zardari.
Another FIA insider said that the agency is still able to hunt down illegal gateway exchanges with or without the assistance of Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), adding that illegal exchanges were costing the national exchequer around Rs437.45 million per month. So far, FIA and PTA have shut down 21 such exchanges.
The insider said that without PECO, the penalty for hacking a sensitive information system was the same as intruding a normal system. However, for the first time, 12 people had been arrested for hacking the Supreme Court website and other government websites, with the hackers being from far flung areas such as Bannu, Kohat and Fateh Jang.
According to analysts, ETO 2002 was the first IT-relevant legislation designed by lawmakers and provided the first solid foundation for legal sanctity and protection for e-commerce locally and globally. It laid the foundation for a comprehensive legal infrastructure. PECO came later and dealt with electronic crimes including cyber terrorism, data damage, electronic fraud, electronic forgery, unauthorised access to code, cyber stalking and cyber spamming.
The bill covered penalties ranging from six months imprisonment to capital punishment for 17 types of cyber crimes, which would apply to every person who commits an offence, irrespective of his nationality or citizenship. It gave exclusive powers to FIA to investigate, frame charges, arrest criminals and confiscate material as it feels necessary. However, the bill has been blocked by MNA Marvi Memon in the assembly terming it “contrary to the fundamental rights“ of people.
There was also no provision to tackle child pornography or copyright within the law.
Another issue is that some of the offences like cyber stalking and spamming have very harsh punishments which the senior FIA official said could be rationalised because there are plenty of young children indulging in these acts without knowing the consequences.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 24th, 2011.
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