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Wednesday June 19, 2024

Audio leaks case: IHC restrains telecom companies from tapping phones for surveillance

The court remarked that the federal government can grant permission for such recordings in accordance with the law

By Awais Yousafzai
May 30, 2024
A general view of Islamabad High Court. — Geo News/File
A general view of Islamabad High Court. — Geo News/File

ISLAMABAD: The Islamabad High Court (IHC) has restrained telecom companies from tapping phones for surveillance in the audio leaks case.

Issuing a restraining order with regard to accessing data of consumers and its use, Justice Babar Sattar observed on Wednesday that if telecom companies’ equipment was used for illegal surveillance, the companies would be held responsible and prosecuted.

Justice Sattar remarked that the Prime Minister’s Office, the defence and interior ministries, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and other institutions have categorically said that no authority has been allowed to conduct surveillance of telephone conversations, and illegal surveillance is a crime punishable by law.

During a hearing on the petitions filed by Bushra Bibi and Najamus Saqib, Justice Sattar addressing Additional Attorney General (AAG) Manoor Iqbal Dogal observed that according to his statement, no one has been allowed to tape telephonic conversations, and if you withdraw your stance, it would have consequences.

The court remarked that the federal government can grant permission for such recordings in accordance with the law, but as per Dogal’s statement, no such permission was granted.

The federal officer sought time. The court observed that the case has been pending for the last year, and if the federal government files a false statement, how the matter will proceed further.

The court observed that the PM Office and other authorities had filed statements that no one had been allowed to record phone conversations. The federal law officer submitted that this reply was filed to the extent of the audio leaks.

Justice Sattar observed that whatever it is, the federal law officer must tell the court under which law calls of citizens are being recorded.

The high court told the law officer not to tell the court verbally but to inform it formally who allowed recording the calls of citizens and under what authority such exercise had taken place.

It observed that the law states that the ISI DG, the MI DG or any other intelligence agency should notify a grade-20 officer for permission of surveillance, who would then file a request to the government minister.

The court further stated that the federal minister having seen the supporting material would approve the surveillance, and then the court would issue the final approval. It said privacy has been considered in the law, and asked the law officer where the permission for such surveillance is.

The court inquired as to whether any secret recording has ever been sought from a court under this law, and whether under the law, every six months one’s permit for such secret recording will be reviewed, and if any such review committee has been formed to date.

The IHC also observed that phone recording and providing details of phone recording without the court’s permission is also punishable. It asked if PTA licence conditions include these things or has the PTA given any policy in this regard.

The court asked the law officer if this law has been followed in the last one year, what action has been taken on the illegal telephone recording, and what they have done to investigate how the audio leaks went viral on social media.

Justice Sattar observed that if something is uploaded on social media, it can be tracked from the IP address. The court observed that when the FIA and other institutions were asked to tracked this IP address, they replied that they did not have such capabilities.

The court observed that these were failures of institutions, and what the role of the FIA and the police was and why FIRs had not been registered in this case yet.

It said that in case a crime has been committed in a country if the FIA will wait for someone to come and file a complaint and investigate.

The cybercrime additional director told the court that letters have been written to social media platforms regarding the identification of the accounts, and their response is awaited.

Justice Sattar asked what the investigation officer would do if the answer does not come for another 10 years. The additional director replied that an inquiry into the matter is under way.

The court directed the AAG to take instructions from the federal government and submit replies to the court’s queries. It said surveillance was also conduced of the then chief justice of Pakistan in 1997, and replies were filed in 2015 with the Supreme Court, along with statistics.

The court directed the federal government to submit the record of all the phones tapped by the federal government, and explain the reasons under which authority of the law such secret recordings were made. The court then adjourned the hearing of the case.