Monday June 24, 2024

Byte backlash: new cybercrime agency raises eyebrows

Government established new agency for probing electronic crimes -- effectively making the FIA’s Cyber Crime Wing defunct

By Zebunnisa Burki
May 04, 2024
The representational image of a hacker using a laptop. — Unsplash
The representational image of a hacker using a laptop. — Unsplash 

KARACHI: The government’s new National Cyber Crime Investigation Agency comes as a surprise to digital rights organisations who say they have not yet been consulted regarding this agency, which they say seems to be a continuation of the PML-N’s previous habit of passing cyber-related laws without taking people into confidence.

On Friday, the federal government established a new agency, the National Cyber Crime Investigation Agency (NCCIA), for probing electronic crimes -- effectively making the FIA’s Cyber Crime Wing defunct.

A notification released on Friday, though dated end-April, said that the NCCIA was formed under Section 51 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016 (Peca), abolishing the FIA’s cyber-crime wing.

A day earlier, Information Minister Attaullah Tarar had in a press talk said that the government would be creating an authority to “safeguard digital rights” and deal with propaganda on social media. Speaking to Geo Pakistan on Friday morning, Tarar said that the government is asking different stakeholders to give their recommendations regarding how digital rights are to be protected. Saying that the “world has moved on” from the time the CrPC was written, Tarar said that harm can be threatened via social media -- for example harassment of women online or child pornography.

The information minister also told Geo Pakistan that these steps should not be seen as a restriction or regulation but as protection of digital rights. Hinting at the FIA’s ‘limitations’, Tarar also said that the FIA did not have the capacity to deal with cybercrime. He also said that he had spoken with the Pakistan Broadcasters Association and “all” media houses had been taken on board regarding the need to deal with social media safety. Furthermore, the information minister said they would like to take recommendations also from software houses, intelligentsia, academics, lawyers etc.

While the information minister says he will continue to ask for recommendations, the government’s notification regarding the new cybercrime agency has come as a shock -- and a source of much confusion -- for even those working intimately with cybercrime issues. For one, they say they have not been consulted.

Lawyer, digital rights activist and founder of the Digital Rights Foundation Nighat Dad tells The News that she does not know of any civil society stakeholder who has been consulted in this. Speaking to the increasing frustration regarding this move, she says “there is so much uncertainty around this and so much confusion. To be honest, there is little we can even comment on since we have no idea what is going on here.”

The need for consultation is echoed across the width and breadth of civil society and rights bodies. President of the Association of Electronic Media Editors and News Directors Azhar Abbas says that “no legislation on the media will be acceptable if editors, news directors and working journalists are not consulted. Also, media rights bodies should also be made part of the consultative process.”

And this seems not to have happened at least till now as far as the new cybercrime agency goes -- or whatever rules and framework it is going to work under. Director of digital rights organisation Bolo Bhi Usama Khilji says that the news of the National Cyber Crime Investigation Agency (NCCIA) came as a surprise, and that stakeholders such as digital rights groups have not been consulted. According to Khilji, “it does not make sense to create this new agency because essentially what they are doing is that they are taking the cyber crime unit of the FIA and giving it a new name. I wonder why they would need to create this new agency if the FIA already existed and has worked on cybercrime law and Peca for eight years. What makes more sense is to improve their capacity and training rather than create a whole new agency.”

Co-founder of Media Matters for Democracy (MMFD), a media development organisation, Sadaf Khan says that, while she is not sure if one can see the new agency as good or bad yet, what stands out “is the lack of transparency and deliberations around this. We have no clue about the thought behind the establishment of the new agency and how [if] the government is dealing with issues that made FIA an ineffective agency dealing with cybercrime”.

Advocate Supreme Court Mian Sami ud-Din explains the government’s Friday notification thus: “it notifies rules which establish a new National Cyber Crime Investigation Agency under Section 29 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), which replaces the FIA as the agency with jurisdiction to investigate electronic crimes. For the time being, the rules provide that the existing officers of the cybercrime wings of the FIA will continue to work as officers of this new agency.”

This clears part of the confusion expressed by digital rights activists on who will be the human resource for the new agency. But at the same time it also brings up more questions such as: why the need for a new agency if the same people will be working in it?

Another issue, says Sadaf Khan, is how much existing issues will be resolved. She explains: “We all have seen abuse of power from FIA’s end. Until we see the rules being designed for this new agency, we won’t know if these issues are being addressed. And given the track record [look at the deflection on X] I don’t feel hopeful that the consultation, if it happens, will be meaningful.”

For Sami ud-Din, the government seems to wish to “at the behest of the security establishment, introduce more draconian legislation to control social media. While there may be legitimate interests in social media regulation, the government appears to be completely off the mark in striking a proper balance in safeguarding freedom of expression.”

The main concern for Nighat Dad as a digital rights activist is how to proceed forward with such uncertainty looming. She tells The News that she is worried about the cybercrime helpline she runs which refers cases to cybercrime wings. “When we receive calls now, which agency are we supposed to go to? And what happens to ongoing cases? It’s not like these things take days; these are cases that take months. Are the ongoing cases going to be taken from the FIA and given to the new agency? How are these things going to be streamlined? Who will we be referring the cases to in the interim? These are all valid questions to which we have no answers since we are in the dark as of now.”

The answer, says Usama Khilji, is that “clearly the PML-N is working the same way it did when PECA was being passed -- bringing in laws and regulations without consulting stakeholders and taking people into confidence. This heralds quite a restrictive regulatory environment for the internet for the coming years or so. It seems they want to gain the power to prosecute dissidents, activists and journalists who are critical of state policies.”

Any good faith steps forward, he says, should be “multi-stakeholder, involve meaningful consultation to actually protect the rights of citizens”.