Recent claims that the Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) gained access to Pakistan’s Internet Exchange and essentially every internet user in the country, have shaken digital rights activists and legislators in Pakistan.
Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Fishman are the two journalists who made these revelations in an article on The Intercept, and according to them, the UK’s GCHQ took advantage of exploits in Cisco routers and used software reverse-engineering to access Pakistan’s internet exchange.
These activities were reportedly part of the British GCHQ’s computer network exploitation (CNE) operations and journalist Glenn Greenwald cited an official document marked Top Secret, which was released by The Intercept as the source behind these revelations.
The document, while specifically mentioning Pakistan, states that, “GCHQ’s CNE operations against in-country communications switches (routers) have also benefited from SRE. Capability against Cisco routers developed by this means has allowed a CNE presence on the Pakistan Internet Exchange which affords access to almost any user of the internet inside Pakistan. Our presence on routers likewise allows us to re-route selected traffic across international links towards GCHQ’s passive collection systems”.
Awais Ahmed Khan Leghari, the former IT minister and currently a member of the National Assembly denied having any knowledge of such activities from his tenure in office and stated that, if the revelations held merit, they should be pursued by Pakistan using International law.
“This is against global telecom regulations. No country’s agency can authorise intelligence-gathering against another country, no treaty ratified by Pakistan under the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) gives UK intelligence the right to do this,” said Mr. Awais Ahmed Khan Leghari.
Currently no comments have come forth from the existing IT Minister Anusha Rehman, however several civil society and digital rights groups in Pakistan have condemned the British GCHQ’s activities, calling them draconian and unethical.