Why is it that we only act after we have been caught with our pants down from a threat we long knew existed? This is exactly what the premier regulator of telecommunications and – by extension of which – the internet, has decided to do by suggesting that it will form a new cybersecurity agency in the country to counter the threat from cyber attackers. The move is the state’s attempt to respond to reports that India employed digital spyware created by Israeli cyber penetration firm NSO to hack Prime Minister Imran Khan’s phone.
The question is: why we have failed to move on this sooner? The threat of cyberattacks is not new. The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, which will shape up the mentioned agency, has been facing attacks for well over a decade. Website belonging to the PTA and those of numerous other government agencies and services have been hacked repeatedly over the past 10 years. When the Pakistan Electronics Crime Act, or PECA, was being drafted, rights groups had pointed out the need to include provisions for safeguarding public data online. Despite the alarms raised, little was done.
Then there is the issue of capability. Our digital regulators have time and again been proved to have been incapable of regulating the internet, simply because it is a beast beyond their control. Even in terms of clear criminal activity, the Federal Investigation Agency, which is designated to tackle cybercrime, told this very committee that it takes action in just 34% of reported cases owing to gross understaffing; and that for a lot of complaints they receive, they have to interact with multinational organisations which are not always obligated to comply with the local laws.
An unregulated, unaccountable and all-powerful security organisation will only do as much as some other bodies are already doing: damage control after the event. We need a robust agency that safeguards our interests online, but we need a body that is constitutional, has public oversight, and acts in public interest.
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