Pakistan building digital espionage capacity to rival the US

Published: July 23, 2015


ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s intelligence agency sought to tap worldwide Internet traffic via underwater cables that would have given the country a digital espionage capacity to rival the US, according to a report by Privacy International.

The report says the country’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency hired intermediary companies to acquire domestic spying toolkits from Western and Chinese firms for domestic surveillance.

It also claims the ISI sought access to tap data from three of the four “landing sites” that pass through the country’s port city of Karachi, effectively giving it access to Internet traffic worldwide.

Read: Over 5,000 phones being tapped by IB, SC told

Pakistan was in talks with a European company in 2013 to acquire the technology but it is not clear whether the deal went through – a fact the rights organisation said was troubling.

“These cables are going to route data through various countries and regions,” Matthew Rice, an advocacy officer for Privacy International, told AFP.

“Some will go from Europe to Africa and all the way to Southeast Asia. From my reading that’s an explicit attempt to look at what’s going on.”

Read: Espionage charges: Court directs PAF to try detained officer per law

Traffic from North America and regional rival India would also be routed via the cables, he said.

The report, based on what it called previously unpublished confidential documents, said the data collection sought in the ISI’s proposal “would rival some of the world’s most powerful surveillance programmes” including those of the United States and Britain.

A spokesman for Pakistan’s military said he was not able to comment on the issue at the present time.

Last month Pakistani rights campaigners and opposition lawmakers urged Islamabad to protect the privacy of its citizens after leaked top-secret documents appeared to show British intelligence had gained access to almost all the country’s Internet users.

The country is also in the process of debating its own cyber-crime bill, which rights campaigners say threatens to curtail freedom of expression and privacy in its current form.

Rights groups also expressed concern over a provision that allows the government to share intelligence with foreign spy agencies, such as the American National Security Agency, and the mandating of service providers to retain telephone and email records for up to a year.

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Reader Comments (21)

  • curious2
    Jul 23, 2015 - 6:43PM

    Seeking is different than obtaining. I find it unlikely that Pakistan has the sophistication to rival the USA in espionage – digital or otherwise.Recommend

  • jerry
    Jul 23, 2015 - 6:54PM

    Let us not make fool of intelligence of common reader.
    Article says
    “also claims the ISI sought access to tap data from three of the four “landing sites” that pass through the country’s port city of Karachi”
    If you tap data from landing site than you have access to data enter and leaving country specific ,you can not tap data of worldwide internet traffic.

    Let us do some research before printing article, this is totally absurd observation.Recommend

  • Bilal
    Jul 23, 2015 - 8:20PM


    Thank you, this is the first thing that clicked when I read the complete article. The headline is typical click bait.

    The report just talks about proposals and whether ISI actually went ahead with it is unknown. Secondly, as clearly mentioned in the report and this article the taps were supposed to be at LANDING points which means that only data entering and exiting the country would be tapped. This poses no threat to anyother country.Recommend

  • Ali S
    Jul 23, 2015 - 8:30PM

    Although I’m not a fan of having my online activities monitored, if it helps in preventing terrorism, fine enough. The US has adopted similar measures.Recommend

  • Rashid
    Jul 23, 2015 - 10:21PM

    Can we rival the US in education, technology and economic strength? Or at least try to become 5% of US capacity?Recommend

  • MK
    Jul 23, 2015 - 10:28PM

    @ Ali S, are you serious? Massive invasion of privacy. No thanks. Besides any of the “bad guys” who want to hide what they do online badly enough, can do it. Its the layman who is going to be monitored, and have their privacy invaded, which is not fair at all.Recommend

  • bubba5
    Jul 24, 2015 - 12:59AM

    No offense .. but wouldn’t it be more practical to develop a good relationship with the American’s and get the same information which is more timely/accurate/free rather than spend precious resources on an endeavor which is sure to fall short of the mark?Recommend

  • Jul 24, 2015 - 2:37AM

    Why can’t we?Recommend

  • Usman
    Jul 24, 2015 - 5:28PM

    Though the report seems pretty far fetched due to some bizarre claims that are technically impossible, but in the case that they are true, I for one am all for it. I have trust in ISI and Pak Army. Many terror and foreign agencies covertly working in the country easily communicate with each other with not only local sims but common online chat services.
    We have fallen into a ditch, we’ll have to get dirty to get out of it.Recommend

  • Mind boggling
    Jul 24, 2015 - 6:17PM

    So with all this data, who exactly has the time to read, to digest, to understand, and then to explain to his senior in a manner that he will understand, keeping the interpretation precisely the same. What happens when foreign languages are used and the interpretation is different, who exactly judges, what should be the narrative and who decides what information is useful and what is not. Pakistan has had bad experience of insiders from all three services doing what they did. How does one even know of a mole operating these computers and how. There are quite clearly more questions than answers. Having data which cannot be used or which cannot be understood, or which is cumbersome to store, or which is not of any use, or which can become dangerous in wrong persons hands or which can be interpreted with a different narrative or written in a manner which only the author understands, what happens when people operating the systems resigns, and divulges information? Recommend

  • Usman
    Jul 24, 2015 - 9:51PM

    @Mind boggling:
    Excuse me sir, let me explain to you how data mining actually works, the internet traffic passing through Pakistan can actually be tapped into so someone – like ISI can listen in. They copy the data from specific websites – can be facebook, can even be skype calls – then there are specifically designed software that can sift through all this data in seconds and then highlight the messages and calls that include specific words like bomb etc etc, an officer will be able to read the entire message or listen to the recorded call and determine whether its worth looking into or not. The software are actually what listens to every call/message.
    In case you don’t know, ISI has deferred thousands of threats by a smaller version of the same scheme. We are comfortably listening to the news that a terror plot has been foiled, programs like this are the reason behind them and just because some people get offended by this idea, many countries have to ditch this method of knowing everything about your enemy.Recommend

  • ajeet
    Jul 25, 2015 - 9:22AM

    When there are millions of Pakistanis without food, toilet and security, its a criminal waste of money in Pakistan’s quest to become another china type security state. The Saudis at least have petrol to dream of this grandeur.Recommend

  • Jul 25, 2015 - 9:30AM

    This is really good because not just the intelligence agents of enemy countries but even terrorists have started coordinating terrorist activities via internet or social media or whatever you may call it.Recommend

  • Jul 25, 2015 - 10:08AM

    Exactly, when there are hundreds of farmers in India who are commiting suicides because of no money…girls commiting suicides due to no toilet facility….people sleeping on the foothpaths of capital delhi…..why is India spending billions of dollars on latest arms? This is a good decision by Pakistan to tackle dirty plans of stupid enemies who call them self secular people.Recommend

  • Union Jack
    Jul 25, 2015 - 11:09AM

    Maybe you do not understand the difference between water pipe line and internet. Internet does not “pass through” Pakistan. And sensors against sniffing is laid almost on any international gateway of optic fibers. Also the data transmissions of someone seriously wanting to harm is encrypted by so many layers of security that by the time you peel the first layer the attack is already done. This is why intelligence agencies in UK and USA are trying to push law to ban stronger encryptions. So before you throw big words like “data analytics”, first worry about deciphering and decrypting the whole data packets before putting it through data analytics engine.
    Not saying Pakistan does not have talent. But don’t be naive to imagine that internet is like transparent pipe where the milk flows and you will just look at it and make sense. Recommend

  • Jul 25, 2015 - 11:27AM

    @Union Jack:
    Whatever it is, it’s something good so please stop giving us your information….we are a already installing fibre optic cable….this is another step….just because it’s written “to rival the US” please don’t be mad at us.Recommend

  • Jul 25, 2015 - 11:39AM

    USA doesn’t provide us enough cobra gunships….USA doesn’t provide us new F-16’s….USA doesn’t provide us M-16 rifles…..USA allows our enemy to disturb us from Afghanistan….USA doesn’t speak who is disturbing Pakistan while sitting in Afghanistan….so simply USA doesnt believe us… get defence equipment from the US you need to kill your self….lol why would the US give us such sophisticated technology? US jumps into Pakistan like a stupid war machine to kill a fake osama or a clone of osama or whatever you may call it and than it produces a movie in ugly India…USA fighting a war for the west,Israel and India… wowRecommend

  • Usman
    Jul 26, 2015 - 6:06PM

    @Union Jack:
    sir, if you believe your facebook profile is hidden from someone who want a look into your chat, you have no idea of how the internet works. the common user has access to only about 10-20% of the web, the deep web is where you can find anything. and if a deep sea cable is breached, that means the breacher can get access to all the countries that are using that particular cable. NSA is trying to ban encryption not to find terrorists but to snoop into private files of the public. even banning encryption won’t stop anyone, even a young programmer can build a very complex encryption algorithm. the main goal is to see what is being communicated and read anything that seems fishy. facebook, emails and comments on different sites is how most terrorists communicate and it can be, and has been done- easily. Organized crime syndicates and foreign intelligence agencies use advanced encryption.Recommend

  • Jul 26, 2015 - 9:28PM

    So this is good.Recommend

  • Usman
    Jul 26, 2015 - 11:45PM

    it is great because we will be increasing our efficiency and frequency of uncovering terror plots and people behind them.Recommend

  • Jul 26, 2015 - 11:53PM

    I’m sure the last word we would see would be India….India “da mastermindo of terrorismi” …Recommend

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