Govt authorises ISI to trace, intercept calls, messages

PM Shehbaz's govt grants powers under Section 54 of Telecommunication (Re-organization) Act 1996

A person holding a mobile phone while an unknown caller calls them in Karachi, on July 9, 2024. —
A person holding a mobile phone while an unknown caller calls them in Karachi, on July 9, 2024. —
  • Powers given under Pakistan Telecommunications Act 1996.
  • Govt highlights apprehension of crime against national security.
  • ISI to nominate officer not less than of grade 18 for said duty.

ISLAMABAD: The federal government has given its nod to the country's premier spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to intercept and trace calls and messages in the apprehension of an offence against national security.

The federal cabinet has approved the relevant circular allowing a designated officer of the ISI to carry out the tracing of calls under Section 54  of the Telecommunication (Re-organization) Act 1996. However, the officer nominated by the agency cannot be of less than grade 18.

The aforementioned section of the Telecommunications Act allows the federal government to authorise any person or persons to intercept calls and messages or to trace calls through any telecommunication system in the interest of national security.

It also states that the government will have preference and priority in the telecommunication system over any licensee for the defence or security of the country against any foreign aggression.

"The federal government in the interest of national security and in the apprehension of any offence is pleased to authorise the officers [...] to be nominated from time to time by ISI to intercept calls and messages or to trace calls through any communication system," read the notification issued by the Ministry of Information on Monday.

Notification issued by the Ministry of Information. — Reporter
Notification issued by the Ministry of Information. — Reporter

The move comes against the back drop of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif-led government's steps towards stricter social media regulations citing national security concerns and the prevailing ban on popular social media platform X.

In May, PM Shehbaz approved a draft to amend the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016 which suggested the establishment of a Digital Rights Protection Authority.

Moreover, the government is also installing a national firewall on different internet service providers (ISPs) to rein in social media with filters capable of blocking unwanted content from reaching a wider audience, The News reported on June 7.

The latest firewall will be used to inspect information originating from different internet protocol addresses.

"The national firewall will serve two purposes: identify the locations from where the propaganda material is being originated and the subsequent blockade or diminished coverage of those accounts". He added: "But, I think the main focus will remain on locating the source of such propaganda to nip the evil in the bud," said an official who was aware of the information.

There will be a keyword filtering system to detect content the government considers undesirable or prejudicial to national security etc. The filter will act like an information inspector. These kinds of posts will likely be camouflaged and will subsequently be made invisible to outside users.

Posts from all dissenting voices in and out of the country are likely to pass through this inspection before they are allowed to be made properly visible.

This filter will run its check on social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube and X (formerly known as Twitter). Preparation is also in progress to prevent the ‘misuse’ of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) as the government can declare it mandatory for citizens to inform the PTA about the VPNs they are using. Anyone failing to do that could land in trouble.

When approached by Geo Fact Check for comments, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) as well as Minister of State for IT Shaza Fatima Khawaja, the latter did not issue any response.

However, ministry spokesperson Jameel Ahmed said that the implementation of the firewall fell within the "domain of the PTA".

Contrastingly, the PTA spokesperson claimed that "ministry's project" and only they could respond to questions about the firewall.

Moreover, the PTA, earlier this month, proposed a new regulatory framework requiring all Over-The-Top (OTT) services, including YouTube, Netflix, WhatsApp, Facebook, and X to register locally for a period of 15 years.

According to a 14-page draft available on its website, the PTA recommends that OTT Communication Services operating in Pakistan obtain a 15-year license from the regulatory body.

If implemented, OTT services would need to comply with the new authorisation framework within 12 months, after which services without the PTA authorisation would be considered illegal, according to the draft.