Telcos barred from recording citizen calls

IHC seeks record of phone conversations recorded by govt so far

Our Correspondent May 30, 2024
Justice Babar Sattar. PHOTO: FILE


The Islamabad High Court (IHC) has barred telecom companies from recording citizens' telephone conversations for surveillance. In the event of a violation, the respective telco will be held accountable, warns the court.

Justice Babar Sattar of the IHC issued this directive on Wednesday during a hearing concerning the alleged leaking of telephone calls involving Najamus Saqib, son of former Chief Justice of Pakistan Saqib Nisar, and Bushra Bibi, wife of former prime minister Imran Khan.

Justice Sattar emphasized that neither the Prime Minister's Office, the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Interior, nor the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) have authorized any entity to conduct telephone surveillance. "Illegal surveillance is a punishable crime," he stated.

During the hearing, the judge addressed Additional Attorney General (AAG) Munawar Iqbal Duggal, stating that according to the AAG, no one has been given permission for phone tapping.

“If you now retract from this stance, there will be consequences. The law states that the federal government can grant permission, but according to you, no such permission has been given," he said.

When AAG Duggal requested more time, Justice Sattar asked if he did not know that this case was scheduled for that day, Wednesday.

“These petitions have been under consideration for a year. If the federal government lies to the court, how will the matter proceed? Reports have been submitted by the Prime Minister's Office and other institutions, stating that no one has been granted permission for legal interception."

Duggal stated that the response was limited to the audio leaks of the petitioners—Najamus Saqib and Bushra Bibi.

However, Justice Babar Sattar urged the state’s law officer to specify under which law citizens' calls are being recorded.
“Do not just provide verbal explanations; formally clarify this. Tell us who has been given permission and who has the authority to record citizens' calls," he said.

Read IHC seeks govt’s response on audio leaks

Justice Sattar further remarked that the law stipulates that the director generals of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) or the Military Intelligence (MI) will notify a grade-20 officer, who will then apply for surveillance permission.

“The next step involves the relevant minister reviewing the supporting material and granting surveillance permission, which is ultimately approved by court. Even within this legal framework, privacy is considered,” he said, adding that "If surveillance permission was granted then where is that?"

The court raised several questions regarding the legality and oversight of phone surveillance. Justice Babar Sattar asked whether any secret recordings have ever been authorized by the court under this law. He noted that the law requires a review of such secret recording permissions every six months. He inquired whether any such review committee has ever been formed.

"Recording phone calls and providing phone recordings without judicial approval is also punishable," he stated, questioning whether the conditions of the PTA license include these provisions and if the PTA has issued any policy regarding this matter.

He asked if the law has been followed in the past year and what actions have been taken against illegal phone recordings. He also questioned what investigations have been conducted to determine how audio leaks went viral on social media.

Justice Sattar pointed out that any content uploaded on social media can be tracked through IP addresses. "When the FIA [Federal Investigation Agency] and other institutions were asked to track and report this, they said they lacked the capability. This indicates a failure of the institutions.

“What is the role of the FIA and police? Why haven't FIRs been registered in this matter yet? If a crime occurs in a country, do you wait for someone to file a complaint before investigating?" he asked.

FIA additional director cybercrime informed the court that they have written a letter to the social media platform and are awaiting a response with regard to the origin of the leaked audios.

In response, Justice Sattar asked, "What will you do if the response doesn't come within the next ten years?" The Additional Director Cyber Crime replied, "An inquiry into this matter is ongoing."

The IHC later directed the AAG to seek instructions from the federal government and compile answers to the court's questions. Additionally, the court requested the record of the secret conversation recorded by the federal government to be presented.

"You must also provide an answer regarding under which law the intelligence agencies acted. Surveillance of the chief justice of Pakistan had also taken place, which led to inquiries in the Supreme Court,” he added.


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