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IHC uncovers illegal mass surveillance system

Last month, during hearings concerning the illegal surveillance of Bushra Imran Khan, wife of the former prime minister, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) discovered that the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) had mandated telecom companies to finance, import, and install a system enabling extensive surveillance of citizens’ data.

This system, known as the Lawful Intercept Management System (LIMS), allows access to private messages, video and audio content, call records, and web browsing histories, as revealed in court documents.

In an order dated June 26 and released over the weekend, Justice Babar Sattar of the IHC noted that LIMS was being utilized by “designated agencies” for surveillance purposes. The PTA directive required telecom companies to facilitate surveillance on 2% of their customer base, potentially affecting over four million citizens simultaneously.

Justice Sattar highlighted that this mass surveillance lacked legal basis and operated without judicial or executive oversight. While LIMS allowed agencies to access SMS, call data, and encrypted data, it did not provide automated decryption for encrypted data.

The PTA did not respond to Geo.tv’s requests for comments.

How Does LIMS Work?

According to the IHC’s order, a “designated” law enforcement agency initiates a track and trace request for a customer’s data. The request is processed through LIMS in an automated manner, after which private information such as SMS and call data available on the telecom network is reported back to the agency. Court documents disclose that through such surveillance, voice calls made by subscribers can be heard and re-heard, SMS messages can be read, and audio and video content generated by or passing through the devices of consumers, as well as details of web pages browsed, can be reviewed and stored.

Court Documents Reveal PTA Ordered Telecoms to Implement Mass Surveillance System

The court ruled that since LIMS had been installed unlawfully, agencies using the system to surveil citizens are liable to criminal charges. The IHC order compared the mass surveillance system to George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

Ramsha Jahangir, a journalist and digital rights activist, told Geo.tv that there is nothing “lawful” about this surveillance system, describing it as a significant breach of user privacy. She expressed concern over the secrecy surrounding the system’s deployment and use, which even allows agencies to collect encrypted data, such as WhatsApp messages, and request tech companies to decrypt content.

Geo.tv also found a 2016 document on the PTA’s website mandating telecom companies wishing to operate in Pakistan to facilitate “lawful interception of communication” for security agencies. However, the document does not specify which agency would conduct surveillance or cite relevant sections of the Pakistan Telecommunication Act supporting this requirement.

For now, the IHC has temporarily barred telecom companies from allowing LIMS to access their networks or procure consumer data. It further directed PTA to file a sealed report detailing how the Lawful Interception Management System was procured and installed, how it is manned, and the entities and individuals who have had access to it.

The IHC has adjourned the case till September and, in the meantime, ordered that a show-cause notice be issued to PTA’s members and its chairman under Article 204 of the Constitution, along with Section 2(b) and 6 of the Contempt of Court Ordinance, 2003, for “making misrepresentations with regard to the Lawful Intercept Management System.”

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