Pakistan attempted to tap international internet data exchange points

Ray Walsh

Ray Walsh

July 27, 2015

A new report made by Privacy International reveals that the Pakistani intelligence agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) made concerted efforts to use intermediary firms to purchase both Western and Chinese-made surveillance software for domestic use.  The espionage software in question is so sophisticated that having it at its disposal would have given ISI a means of surveillance capable of competing with the highest levels of Western espionage.

The report also demonstrates that Pakistan’s Intelligence agency desired a way to tap into three important underwater internet ‘landing site’ locations in its port city of Karachi.  Those locations are internet data exchange points that control the vast amounts of data which passes through the country, and would have given Pakistan access to most of the world’s internet traffic.

According to the report by Privacy International, any success on ISI’s part to gain access to these underwater data points would have resulted in the country achieving a high level of espionage sophistication. So good, in fact, that it could have quickly begun to rival surveillance ‘big guns’ such as GCHQ and the NSA.

The report shows that back in 2013 Pakistan held a number of talks with a European surveillance company that sells an accomplished surveillance package. Unfortunately, the available evidence does not demonstrate whether a final deal was ever reached between the two parties, leaving one largely in the dark about the level of espionage expertise that Pakistan has managed to achieve.

Matthew Rice from Privacy International made the following statement about the report,

‘These cables are going to route data through various countries and regions. Some will go from Europe to Africa and all the way to south-east Asia. From my reading, that’s an explicit attempt to look at what’s going on.’

A spokesperson from the Pakistani ministry of defense was contacted by Privacy International, but no official statement was released. Pakistan’s military not in the mood, it would appear, to reveal whether its surveillance goals were ever brought to fruition.

One thing worth noting is that the data exchange points in question would have given Pakistan access to a wealth of information relating to various rivaling markets. Among them, those of India and North America: a relative treasure trove of data that could easily have resulted in the procurement of essential private economic data.

At this time, Pakistan is in the middle of a hot debate on newly proposed cybercrime legislation for the country (not too dissimilar to the provisions in America that allowed for the bulk collection of ordinary citizen’s metadata.) Many feel that this new bill would seriously encroach on the rights of ordinary people.

Leaked documents have also recently revealed that British intelligence may have had access to nearly the entire of Pakistan’s Internet user data. Those records also show that the country’s intelligence agency may have made a deal to share information with foreign intelligence agencies such as the NSA.  Under these circumstances, it is pretty easy to understand why there is growing sentiment among digital rights campaigners in Pakistan to put pressure on its officials in Islamabad to better protect the privacy of its citizens.

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