Friday May 24, 2024

Behind the leaks

By Dr Farrukh Saleem
May 07, 2023

As the scandal of leaked audio recordings continues to dominate the headlines in Pakistan, two critical questions demand answers: First, who is behind the release of these confidential conversations involving high-profile individuals? Second, who possesses the technical capabilities to record discussions carried out through various communication platforms like WhatsApp, Skype, Zoom or Google Meet? The public deserves answers to these questions, as the privacy of personal conversations is a fundamental right that should be protected at all costs.

In today's digital age, privacy is a top concern for many individuals. One important tool that has emerged in recent years to protect privacy is end-to-end encryption (E2EE). Simply put, this method ensures that only the sender and intended recipient can read messages by encrypting content throughout the transmission process. Not even service providers or government authorities can access the information.

As concerns about privacy grow, it's important to understand that encryption is not foolproof. Unfortunately, leaked audio recordings continue to circulate, demonstrating the limitations of encryption. When this happens, decryption technologies come into play. There are four main types of decryption technologies: symmetric, asymmetric, hashing, and SSL/TLS. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Pegasus, developed by Israeli cybersecurity firm NSO Group, is infamous for its ability to infiltrate mobile devices and extract sensitive data without the user's knowledge. This 'zero-click' spyware can collect vast amounts of information, including text messages, emails, photos, and location data.

After exhaustive research into decryption technologies and intelligence agencies with the capacity to intercept communication platforms like WhatsApp, Skype, Zoom, or Google Meet, two categories have emerged: agencies that have developed the capability to intercept and agencies that have acquired the capability to intercept. The former includes four agencies: Unit 8200 (Israel), National Security Agency (US), Federal Security Service (Russia), and Ministry of State Security (China). The latter category includes RAW (India), SSS (Azerbaijan), NSA (Bahrain), IH (Hungary), KNB (Kazakhstan), CNI (Mexico), DGST (Morocco), NISS (Rwanda), GIP (Saudi Arabia), GDSS (UAE), and GCH (UK). Notably, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is absent from both categories. It is important to note that there are two additional ways in which conversations carried out through popular communication platforms like WhatsApp, Skype, Zoom, or Google Meet can be recorded. First, a device can be hacked, allowing the perpetrator to record the discussion without the knowledge or consent of the participants. Second, one of the conversationalists can choose to record the conversation themselves, potentially without the other parties being aware.

The question arises: who is behind the leak of recorded conversations involving high-profile individuals in Pakistan? The ISI lacks the ability to decrypt conversations on messaging platforms like WhatsApp, Skype, Zoom, or Google Meet. This leaves three possibilities: a hacked device, one of the conversationalists recording the conversation, or a hostile foreign intelligence agency.

If not the ISI, then who? What really motivates a foreign hostile intelligence agency to record and leak conversations of high-profile individuals in Pakistan? It serves two goals: to sow seeds of mistrust between Pakistanis and their armed forces; and to inflame existing political polarization. So next time you hear the sound of a scandalous audio leak, remember that it could be the work of a foreign mischief-maker trying to undermine stability and sow chaos.

The writer is a columnist based in Islamabad. He tweets @saleemfarrukh and can be reached at: