Intelligence agencies have access to phone recording system, IHC told

PTA has access to phone recording system, and can give it to whichever agency it wants, says telco counsel

Our Correspondent March 14, 2024
Telcos' counsel told the IHC that the government and agencies have access to the phone recording system as it is under their jurisdiction. PHOTO: FILE


The Islamabad High Court (IHC) was informed on Thursday that intelligence agencies have access to phone recording system through the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA).

The counsel for telecom operators appeared before the high court as it heard pleas against the leaked audios of former premier Imran Khan’s wife Bushra Bibi and ex-CJP Saqib Nisar’s son. The case was heard by IHC’s Justice Babar Sattar.

The counsel said that the recording system is installed, and the PTA has the key to it. The government and agencies have access to the system as it is under their jurisdiction. “We have given access to the system to the PTA. The authority can give access to whichever agency it wants,” he said, adding that the PTA was in a better position to answer the court’s queries.

The additional attorney general (AAG) however told the court that the government had not given any such permissions for the concerned calls.

Justice Sattar got irked at the AAG’s reply, telling him this was not the correct manner to argue the case. He said the prime minister, attorney general, as well as three additional secretaries, submitted their replies stating that no permission was given to tap phone calls. “Today you are coming and informing the court that your reply was limited to this case only,” the judge stated.

The judge observed that the court repeatedly asked the federal authorities to inform it if there existed a system under which these calls were being recorded, warning of consequences if a false report was submitted to the court.

“Under which law is all of this happening?” he asked. “I have been asking you for the past eight months under which framework have you been operating. Should you not know which competent agency is being granted access to?” Justice Sattar asserted.

Read IB neither confirms, nor denies audio tapping

The judge then inquired of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority’s (PEMRA) counsel if they had issued any instructions regarding the unconfirmed leaked audio calls being aired on media channels. Their counsel replied that the most the authority could do was prohibit the media from running them, adding that it has issued instructions regarding the matter as per the IHC’s order.

PTA chairman told Justice Sattar that 90% of mobiles have spyware through which their cameras can also be operated. An Israeli company made a software called Pegasus that infects a mobile, he explained, adding that hacking a phone was not a difficult task. “All it takes is a minute,” he said. “If you leave the phone with me to go to the washroom I can connect my phone to yours and acquire full access to it in the meantime,” the counsel said.

Responding to the PTA chairman’s statement, the judge asked him if he was telling the court that all the phone tapping was being done illegally.

The counsel representing telcos informed the court that a legal provision exists within the license policy which allows interception of phone calls and the telecommunication providers are bound by the policy. He added that telcos themselves play no role in call interception.

The judge then asked whether any system exists for legal interception, to which the counsel replied that a system from PTA is installed and the authority to use lays with the federal government.

"This matter is between the federal government, the PTA and the concerned agency," said the counsel representing the telcos.

Justice Sattar inquired if the telecom operators were not aware of who accesses their data streams. "Can the system be used without involving telecom operators? Who is the relevant and authorised agency for phone tapping," asked the judge? "We are not aware, we only install the system where we are asked to by the PTA," replied the telcos' counsel.

The high court then adjourned the hearing and directed the telecom operators' counsel to submit a written report at the next hearing.


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