Pakistan's ISI to rival NSA's Spy Program

Pakistan’s ISI to rival NSA’s Spy Program

A recent report by Privacy International has kicked up a storm. Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, the ISI, has been accused of building mass surveilence program to rival that of NSA. The accusation itself is quite serious, let alone the fact if it really is happening or not.

Recent years have seen not only an awareness among masses for privacy but there have been overt attempts to monitor or curtail freedom in one form or another. A recent example is of vague and badly-worded Prevention of Cyber Crime Bill 2015 that received massive criticism and was stopped from zooming through National Assembly after considerable efforts from rights groups.

Comprehensive Data

In Pakistan the centralized database has information of about 96% of total population, one of the highest in the world. NADRA not only maintains CNIC but also biometrics information of the population and with the new chip-based ID cards, this information is even more comprehensive.

Still, identity theft and fraud is still being done and the whole process is known to NADRA but efforts to curtail it have been useless due to lack of will. Afghan families are able to attain Pakistani citizenship for about Rs. 130,000/person by being shown as siblings/relatives of families (in exchange of vast sum of money) with ID cards. The older the cards, the better and records are easy to find because banks have access to this information.

Similarly registering of SIM cards is also mandatory with biometrics, making mobile communication also tagged with recognized person. Bank accounts, internet services and other facilities are similarly tagged with the system, allowing for single source monitoring for all individuals in the country.

Less Than Stellar Record

Pakistani regimes, particularly military, have been known for being regressive as far as peoples rights are concerned. Zia’s era is particularly prominent while ISI’s interference in electoral process (including rigging) has been proven with Asghar Khan’s case verdict. Intelligence agencies have been used against elected members of the opposition, rival politicians and bringing bureaucrats and judges under the boot.

With this report, however, things seem to have been taken a step too far.

Accomplice in the act

According to the report, Pakistan is a willing and reliable and long-term trusting partner of NSA. Pakistan has been listed as “approved third party SIGINT partner”. This is a list of partners who participate and cooperate with NSA in intelligence gathering and sharing and who take politically risky steps in exchange for modern surveillance technologies (software/hardware) and training.

The proof offered is that NSA maintained a ‘collection point’ in the embassy in Pakistan and operated a server with phone surveillance program called XKeySource. Pakistan also prominently featured in NSA’s mass surveillance program called Fairview that intercepts calls, data and internet traffic.

Comprehensive Surveillance

Privacy International has obtained (and shared) records of surveillance systems operating in Pakistan. All telecom service providers, including PTCL, have software solutions from the likes of Alcatel, Ericson, Huawei, SS8 and Ultimo that have been installed at servers of one or more service provider and tagged to local intelligence agency for traffic monitoring and interception.

Signs of intrusion softwares have also been detected, those utilized to acquire all data of targets and even modify or fake data as well, which includes FinFisher. It was discovered in 2013 that FinFisher operated a server in Pakistan and rights group “Bytes For All” lodged case in Lahore High Court. The court ordered PTA to file a report about it, which to date has not been done nor any progress made in this regard.

Apart from NSA it seems Pakistan’s intelligence agencies also cooperate with UK’s GCHQ. According to recent reports, UK was able to monitor nearly all traffic coming from and going to Pakistan, though for some reason a part of traffic related to telecom companies remained inaccessible to them.

Weak Legislation

Apart from the disastrous attempt at Cyber Crime Bill, legislation in Pakistan has remained weak. Pakistan is signatory of international laws for protection of individual’s rights where privacy and freedom of individuals are guaranteed, yet in practice they aren’t in Pakistan.

Going a Step Ahead

If recent Call for Proposal by ISI is any indication, Pakistani intelligence agencies are looking forward to rival NSA in mass surveillance. In 2013 ISI had released a call for proposal “GSR for Targeted IP Monitoring System and COE” to built mass surveillance program capable of analyzing 660 GB of data per second without letting the user experience any degradation in internet quality. This system would be implemented at the three landing cables from the sea at port city of Karachi, intercepting nearly all data coming in and going out from Pakistan.

Such a program would rival NSA’s “Upstream” and UK’s “Tempora” surveillance programs, exponentially increasing ISI’s intelligence gathering, monitoring and analyzing capabilities.

However, despite its size, its real application was much more limited as 200 staff positions for operating the system were announced and system was required to monitor activities of 1000-5000 people, a much smaller and targeted number compared to the number of internet users in Pakistan.


The Privacy International’s report not only name the companies providing the solutions but also the companies using these tools for mass surveillance. Considering that Pakistan is a front-line state against global terrorism and suffering from acts of mass terrors for over a decade, the need for comprehensive surveillance system not only makes sense but is also the need of the hour.

However, Pakistani state doesn’t have a good track record as far as surveillance and human rights and freedom are concerned. The guilty are set free and the innocents end up rotting in jail, it is something easily believed about judicial system of the country. The interference of intelligence agencies in disrupting political and judicial processes for certain gains is also historically known, creating doubt about any major step taken for monitoring and surveillance. Bolo Bhi, a digital rights group at the forefront of battling against regressive laws in Pakistan, has released initial analysis of this report and will continue to update more through their website.

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