KARACHI: It’s an irony slain PPP chairperson Benazir Bhutto would have appreciated.
Much of the ‘evidence’ that poisoned her voters, brought down her second government and even became the justification for her husband’s conviction was culled from wiretaps.
Fast forward to 2010 and perhaps the most invasive wiretaps by federal intelligence agencies in recorded history are also being conducted while the PPP’s in government.
When Benazir challenged the dissolution of her government, the Supreme Court devoted several pages of its judgement to the issue of wiretapping. Holding the procedure “unlawful”, the court demanded that potential ‘tappers’ seek the permission of the Supreme Court before setting up wiretaps.
But this, confide insiders, isn’t stopping the intelligence agencies any. And helping them all along in the endeavor are the telcos. Without exception, the telecom operators – fixed line or wireless – and mobile phone companies not only provide intelligence agencies with access to client data but also provide live ‘streaming’ facilities.
But the role of the telcos doesn’t end here. Like any good service provider, there’s plenty of aftersales servicing involved. So how does it work? The first step is the installation of gadgets and gizmos at agency headquarters.
The Pakistan Telecommunications Act of 1996 allows the government to “authorise any person or persons to intercept calls and messages or to trace calls through any telecommunication system” for the purposes of defending “national security”.
Significantly, who will be listening in or what such a security threat is are issues left undefined. Into this breach stepped the ISI and the IB. But when the 2005 policy for cell phone operators was issued by the Musharraf government, it included the concept of a ‘legal intercept’.
Although the policy has no legal validity – it isn’t a law passed by the parliament – it held the field. And all telcos started setting up – free of cost – a sophisticated phone tapping system for the benefit of the agencies.
Jibran (name changed to protect identity) was one of the persons who installed a ‘legal intercept’ at the ISI quarters in Islamabad.
“The system includes both hardware and software, which links the system at the agency with that of the telecom operators.” Abbas (name changed on request) is a senior communications engineer with two decades of experience in the telecom industry and, by his own admission, made a lot of money installing one such wiretapping system at an agency.
“The authorised intelligence agency is connected to the hub of telecom operators via a ‘pipeline’,” he explains. “If the agency wants to track a number, the software at their end scans the databases of the concerned telecom network and sniffs out the details, without any help from the telco operators.”
On the other hand, to listen in on any real-time conversation, all the agency needs to do is plug in the ‘suspect’s’ number.
“When an agency gives directions to record conversations of a certain number, the telecom operator sends a parallel stream of the voice data to the intelligence unit, which they can record and store,” explains Jibran.
“In fact, the spooks can also intervene in the conversation or cause the line to drop,” And one call to the Government Relations department at a telco – and every provider has such a department – and the client’s data, payment history and call data, text and multimedia messages for a 45-day period are available.
“The process has now been streamlined as all requests from Pakistan’s numerous security agencies are routed through the ISI,” says Mansoor, who until recently was managing the GR department at a leading mobile company.
On any given day, confides another GR officer, there are at least 20 requests for information. Telcos also provide additional services, including training on how to best use radio waves to track people using their cell phone numbers. And, by all accounts, the training is paying off.
“The technical expertise at the agency end may once have been inadequate but today, the ISI personnel are very good at what they do,” says Abbas. And the ISI has Musharraf to thank for for this, smile ISI officials.
“The star of the IB was on the wane since the mid-nineties. Under General Musharraf, the ISI gained a stranglehold over all information from telecom operators,” gloats one official.
“At times, even the Intelligence Bureau has to route its requests through the ISI.” And this partiality has won the ISI many enemies.
The police, for example, has been up in arms over the fact that they’re not allowed wiretaps and resent the bureaucracy involved in routing requests for information through the ISI. But so far, agencywallahs have been jealously guarding their turf.
“Police should be given access to call details and call tracing but tapping should be in the domain of intelligence agencies only,” says one official, patronisingly. However, he has no answers when asked about how to ensure wiretapping isn’t misused by agencies.
Checks and balances
Who will protect the citizens?
What the law says
The legality of wiretapping has been discussed extensively by a full bench of the Supreme Court in the Benazir Bhutto v Federation of Pakistan case in 1998, in which the dissolution of BB’s second government was challenged.
The Justice Saleem Akhtarauthored judgement said that since there was no procedure for regulating wiretapping of private or official phones, to prevent against violation of constitutionally protected rights, phones could only be tapped with the prior permission of either the Supreme Court or a commission constituted by the Supreme Court which was to examine each case on its merits. Even so, the Supreme Court insisted, the permission could not hold for more than six weeks and the case would be re-examined after that time.
Going a step further, the judgment implied that the court’s permission was also required in cases involving national security. But the procedure specified was never implemented.
Rights activists and legal experts say there is a dire need for legislation which lays down the procedure for wiretapping, even if it is being done to fight terrorism. Without such, they caution, the system is liable to be abused and will infringe of citizen’s fundamental right to privacy.
Toothless regulatory body
In 2005, telecom watchdog Pakistan Telecommunication Authority issued directives to telcos, specifying which intelligence agency should be given information and how the service providers are to maintain records of their clients. However, despite repeated requests, PTA officials refuse to share this document, at times, even arguing it doesn’t exist.
“We can’t discuss issues related to our national security,” asserts PTA director PR Khurram Mehran. “Our official position is that our mandate is restricted only to regulating the telecom sector. However, if any consumer has a complaint, they can approach our consumer protection office.”
However, another senior director-level PTA official says that in March 2005, the Ministry of Interior had issued directives to the regulatory body, identifying the ISI and IB as authorized agencies. “There was no requirement to ask for a search warrant or court order before taking action,” he says.
So does the PTA keep a log of who is being spied on? “Who can keep a check on the agencies?” snorts the official.