Big Brother is watching

Published: August 20, 2016
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What’s even more worrisome is the way in which the PECB’s tentacles are not only wide in breadth but also long in their reach. PHOTO: AFP

Nowadays recording devices, hidden cameras, satellites, and web giants like Facebook and Google collect all sorts of information on tech-users. But, historically, a state of surveillance has always existed. Long before CCTV cameras, bugging devices, and online data collection became the century’s norm, societies were dealing with purloined letters opened before delivery, spies from foreign lands, and good ol’ fashioned eavesdroppers behind closed doors.

Historian David Kahn, writing on human privacy (or the lack thereof), notes how,

“…centuries ago, people in England, France and German states fought for the right to send letters without their being opened by the ‘black chambers’ of absolutist monarchs. The public knew about the letter-opening and hated it [and] the pre-revolutionary French assembly, the Estates-General, (would receive) complaints from all regions of France and from all classes of society about this invasion of their thoughts.”

Ultimately, the human’s most prized possession – privacy – is really just a self-created fallacy. It is a self-serving illusion allowing us to live and act without self-consciousness. As long as man has been on earth in pairs, one part of the pair has, covertly, watched the other.

Dating back thousands of years, research on the Ancient Romans suggests they possessed a most powerful surveillance network used and controlled by its politicians. In fact, it is thought that Julius Caesar’s spy network was so elaborate he was constantly aware of all plots being appraised against him. Some historians maintain Caesar, through his all-inclusive spy network, had had knowledge even of the Senate-led conspiracy that ultimately led to his assassination.

Today, maybe more than ever at any point in our history, the line between the personal and public has blurred beyond recognition.

We live in a world where the surveillance state is an acceptable norm and where governmental spying on its citizenry under the guise of public safety and protection has become unconditionally acceptable. It’s a game of a cat and mouse, played by those with power, influence, and control who want to continue having more of these three things. That’s why global superpowers (like the US) are able to shamelessly spy on phone calls of other world leaders (like Angela Merkel).

Because this is just one of the many ways nations can keep track of and keep in check the schemes being planned by others with an equal measure of power. That’s why governments (like Saudi Arabia and China) unabashedly troll the Twitter feeds of its activist citizens and then go to extreme, inhumane measures to seek out and quash opinions (like those of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi and Chinese human rights lawyer Li Tiantian) unfavourable to it. Because ultimately power is with he who can silence, suppress and strike fear in the hearts and minds of its people.

Last week the National Assembly approved the egregious and overbroad Prevention of Electronic Crimes Bill (PECB) as law. Not only did the country of Pakistan add yet another notch to its belt of terrible decisions, it also joined the ranks of an ever-expanding list of countries that are not-so-subtly encroaching on the boundaries of the rights, freedoms and civil liberties of its people.

Well before the bill became law last week the alarm bells had started going off. With tech experts, activists, civil liberties groups, alarmed politicians all in a harmony it appeared there was global condemnation against the PECB. For a blissful few months it seemed the bill would not stand muster and would fail to become law.

Alas, here we are. With yet another means for the government to clamp down and censor voices not to its liking. In its current form, the barely-modified PECB, which despite some cursory amendments, remains one of the most poorly written anti-cybercrime legislations this lawyer has had the displeasure of reading.

Sure, on the surface level IT Minister Anusha Rehman, the lady behind this mess of a law, is trying to do a necessary, noble job. After all, on the face of it, the PECB promises to go after cyber bullies, potential terrorists, spammers, online stalkers, and those in the business of ruining reputations through revenge porn.

But because this legislation is so poorly written it has the potential to criminalise the actions of the everyday, innocent tech user. Simple acts like voicing dissent against governmental policy on social media, or superimposing an image onto another image to create a powerful, satirical cartoon, or even the act of sending out a (admittedly annoying) mass marketing text are a handful of things that could turn you, the innocent, into the accused facing a heavy jail sentence and fines.

What’s even more worrisome is the way in which the PECB’s tentacles are not only wide in breadth but also long in their reach.

If tomorrow the authority decides that these words, which I have written in my living room in Florida, USA, somehow adversely “affect a person, property, information system, or data located in Pakistan” – I’m toast. That’s because the PECB applies to acts committed both inside and outside Pakistan.

It only gets worse.

Not only is the PECB unlimited in its jurisdiction, the data collected under its broad purview can be made available to any and all authorities without a warrant. Yes, that’s right – even foreign intelligence agencies.

Just in case it wasn’t immediately clear at the start of this article (and what every other article, activist, and journalist has been screaming about the past week), this is what we mean when we repeatedly bash the PECB for being alarmingly overbroad and unacceptably oppressive.

Of course, supporters of the PECB will tout information sharing as a necessary component of any worthwhile cyber security policy.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with sharing technical data about threats to the safety, security, and general well-being of society. That is not the issue. The issue is that the PECB doesn’t just protect society. It goes several steps too far, well past the field of necessity and reasonableness, by siphoning and then criminalising the Internet information of Pakistanis who have absolutely nothing to do with the cyber crimes this bill is supposed to target.

True, this law is not a uniquely Pakistani problem. It is, after all, an amalgamation of British, American and Canadian law – all three nations with a long history of being surveillance states. But that doesn’t mean the public and policymakers should simply just accept it as just one of our many problems. Dissent against this bill is necessary as is the need for the higher courts of this land to vote ‘no’ and order the drafters back to the drawing board.

But until then… Big Brother is watching.

Maria Kari

Maria Kari

The author is a lawyer and freelance journalist. She tweets as @mariakari1414 (twitter.com/mariakari1414)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Keyboard Soldier

    This new cyber law is a copy of the Chinese cyber law. A reporter or staff member of Tribune needs to do an investigative report on it.

    It was introduced to appease the Chinese, who will eventually make Pakistan their colony.

    In China, websites like Facebook, Twitter, Google (english version), dropbox, github, instagram etc. are all banned.Recommend

  • Nasir Jadran

    Maria, you wrote well. Unfortunately, there is a difference between Western people versus Eastern people and especially Pakistani people. The difference is as you have pointed out that people in the West hated letter opening and then subsequent revolutions took place in Europe. Pakistani people on the other hand are naive to an extent that is beyond comprehension. Pakistanis can tolerate all injustices and will never stand up for their rights. It was the leadership of Mr. Jinnah and his companions who tried and it this country independent but people here didn’t come out of slavery and are enslaved to religion, culture, politicians etc you name it. I hope your article don’t go waste in opening people’s eyes.Recommend

  • Parvez

    Nicely explained……what I understand is that laws are created with noble intentions for the good of society, its their misuse, wrong interpretations and also their amendment to fulfill a political or commercial end, that is bad.
    A good example is the ‘ blasphemy law ‘ that was on the books from old British times but was amended ….. and today is widely misused and since religion is involved no one has the courage to correct this wrong.Recommend