The announcement by Blackberry that they would rather leave Pakistan than provide “backdoor” access to the government to its communications has illustrated the kind of attention that is required on the subject of digital rights in Pakistan.
In the name of fighting terrorism, vast powers to tap the private communications of citizens have been handed over to various law-enforcement agencies over the years, to the point where nothing is private anymore.
In fact, given the widespread misuse of these powers, whether for pursuing goals other than fighting terrorism, or, in some cases, for personal or whimsical uses, is commonplace in the country.
There are examples where powers in the digital domain, such as the power to block websites if their content is found to be objectionable, are perceived as being used in an entirely capricious manner, with no known procedure being applied. One cannot say how far the power to monitor communications is being employed, but it is a known fact that the private calls of many citizens, whether politicians, journalists or from other walks of life, are routinely monitored by numerous agencies for reasons that have nothing to do with the war against terrorism.
The case with Blackberry might be the first time the government has been roundly refused its demand for backdoor access to the company’s system. In other countries, the same company has made compromises on similar requests, but Pakistan does not appear to be a large enough market for it to do so here.
It is true that other countries follow similar patterns and pry into private communications for intelligence purposes, but in many cases the exercise is either resisted furiously by civil society or is governed by the law.
That is what Pakistan needs as well. Greater transparency in what powers are being devolved upon which agency, and regular reporting by each agency into how those powers are being used, is badly needed.
It is somewhat futile to argue in this day and age that such powers of surveillance should not belong to any government agency. But given the weakness of the institutions here, and the history of misuse of such powers, it is important to create some mechanisms for accountability and transparency into their utilisation.
So long as such powers are demonstrably used only for the purpose of combating militancy, there should be no opposition. The trick lies in establishing that that is indeed the case.