The government’s new plans to monitor online traffic – both content and communications – has already rung alarm bells for rights groups and the telecom industry alike, and the average citizen should be just as worried over this new breach of privacy. The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) is looking to do this through Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) – a method where “packets” of data are intercepted and the content within is then accessible for review by the government – reportedly in conjunction with Canadian firm Sandvine.
The government’s main argument for this is keeping the country secure, but with a move like this, exactly who the state perceives as its enemies is unclear. Is it non-state actors and terrorists looking to use the internet to carry out attacks against the country, or is it innocent civilians that have a right to their privacy and might be exercising other rights such as the freedoms of speech and expression in disagreement with the state narrative? For the government to infringe upon the basic rights and freedoms of its people, it must identify a pressing need, which it has neglected to do so. Even if that need were to be established, can we be completely certain that intercepting any and every piece of content and communication of the average citizen is the only way to go about securing the state?
Even if one were to concede that the state has a right to monitor any and all communications and content online, partnering with an international company to extract citizens data is highly irresponsible given that the third-party company will also have access to it. After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, one thing that is clear is that technology companies cannot be trusted to handle the personal data of internet users and in Pakistan, the state looks all set to allow a foreign company to gain access to the most precious commodity users stand to offer to platforms and businesses online; their data. Whether or not the company in question has ties to Israel is a moot point – the real problem is that the government’s action in highly irresponsible.
The PTA on its part, is already an inherently problematic state institution. Arbitrarily banning websites that have no “objectionable” content such as Alibaba.com and buzzfeed.com and shriveling social media websites intensely for no justifiable reason goes against all democratic norms. PTA needs a change in direction, the government does not need to keep citizens under constant watch; if anything, it is the public that needs to ensure that the government and its institutions do not use their powers egregiously, which seems to be the case on this occasion.