Big Brother wants access to your Gmail account

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Nothing should terrify us more than picturing an intelligence flunky, scrolling through that email we took four hours composing to our loved one or business partner.

In an ongoing series of impingement of basic right and freedom online, the Pakistani government is now considering the possibility of banning Google and YouTube in Pakistan, because as our interior minister puts it, these sites are being used by terrorists for communication. Additionally, the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) has directed all internet service providers (ISPs) and telcos to ban internet encryption in the name of national security. Add to this, Section 54 of the Pakistan Telecommunication Act that allows the government to authorise any individual or agency to intercept/trace calls and messages in “the interest of national security or in the apprehension of any offence” and you have the makings of a police state. (Note the ambiguous keyword “any offence”.) Last but not the least, ISPs have also been asked to assist in the monitoring of all internet traffic.

The government believes that this is the right way to go about tackling terrorists, by keeping track and monitoring their online communications and activities. And while the average Pakistani may be helpless in the face of this atrocious ‘Big brother’ state-condoned monitoring, rest assured, those terrorists that are actually under threat by such activity have already found their way around it. To help visualise this, it is somewhat analogous to how citizens areharassed at security checkpoints daily, yet suicide bombers are able to get around them. To quote our own government representatives when they fail to stop yet another terrorist act — it is next to impossible to prevent this activity; better nations have tried and failed. Internet monitoring is a complex task that requires vast amounts of resources, know-how and targeted action, along with systems for accountability, and I shudder to think of the mess that is being created right now. All the government is actually doing — by condoning this across-the-board banning of sites and monitoring in cyberspace — is stepping on the rights of its citizens, and impinging on their freedom of information and expression, and privacy.

To sum it up, this means that one’s ‘secure’ bank account transactions are now vulnerable and accessible. This means very personal information; the emails, pictures and words exchanged in private for business, or with a loved one, are soon or perhaps already opened for browsing by a government official/intelligence agency, or, heaven forbid, someone who has a grudge against you and has good contacts.

Is all of this justified in the name of national security? No it is not, especially as it does not work. Is banning Google and YouTube a solution? Is this how the internet is monitored in other countries? No it is not. To cite a relevant section of a recent report by Article 19 (international group monitoring censorship) and Bytes for All (local internet freedom advocacy group):

“Article 19 and Bytes for All remind the PTA that under international legal standards, restriction of the right to freedom of expression for reasons of national security must meet certain conditions known as the ‘three-part test’ developed by the UN Human Rights Committee. National security cannot be used as a pretext for imposing vague or arbitrary limitations…. [E]xpression may be regarded as a threat to national security only if a government can demonstrate that the expression is intended to incite imminent violence; it is likely to incite such violence; and there is a direct and immediate connection between the expression and the likelihood or occurrence of such violence. These and other requirements are therefore not met.”

For the sake of our Gmail accounts, we need to wake up and demand that this ludicrous form of internet monitoring and site banning be stopped. It is time for the government to reach out to concerned groups and develop a system for monitoring and targeting of terror suspects that is agreed upon by its citizens, and one that follows international standards. Demanding anything less is a slippery slope to foregoing other rights that you take for granted.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 20th,  2011.

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