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Thursday July 25, 2024

Dial ‘T’ for tapping

This section grants federal government authority to intercept or trace calls in interest of national security

By Editorial Board
July 11, 2024
Representational image of a person using a cellphone. — AFP/File
Representational image of a person using a cellphone. — AFP/File

Big Brother is not just watching but also listening (apart from the usual banning and blocking). This has become painfully obvious with the federal government’s recent approval for the country’s security agencies to intercept and monitor calls and messages due to the very real national security challenges the country faces. In this regard, the federal cabinet has sanctioned a circular permitting a designated intelligence officer, specifically a Grade-18 officer, to conduct call tapping under Section 54 of the Telecommunication (Re-organisation) Act 1996. This section grants the federal government the authority to authorize any individual to intercept or trace calls through any telecommunication system in the interest of national security. Expectedly, opposition parties have vociferously criticized this move – though some history lessons may not be completely unwarranted here since such opposition rings hollow every time and regardless of which party it is given past support for similar breaches of privacy by parties when they were not the ones being targeted. This duplicity underscores a fundamental truth: it was wrong then, and it is wrong now. Justifying intrusion into what comes under fundamental freedoms under the guise of security raises alarm bells for many, who fear such steps are a stone’s throw away from being used to ‘legally’ intercept the communications of political or politics-adjacent people.

Many argue – again: possibly rightly so – that such surveillance has been ongoing, albeit unofficially and without accountability. We have over the past few years witnessed the release of alleged ‘recordings’ of public figures on social media, with no official explanation as to who is responsible. It is an open secret that these breaches occur, yet they remain unaddressed by those in power. Some legal experts believe this law may have been prompted by observations made during a case at the Islamabad High Court (IHC) concerning the illegal surveillance of citizens and the recording of private phone conversations. If this legislation is indeed a reaction to this case, it is even more troubling. Let us not forget that granting legal cover to phone tapping does not absolve the state of its responsibility to protect the interests and freedoms of its people. Instead what we see these days is the state engaging in actions that violate fundamental rights and freedoms such as banning X (formerly Twitter), installing firewalls, and limiting internet access at the state’s discretion.

This is not to say that national security should be sacrificed at the altar of individual freedoms. In fact, one can argue that fundamental freedoms and security are intertwined. This is precisely why it is imperative to follow the example of countries that provide robust legal and fundamental safeguards even when acting in the interest of security. As citizens, we are already suffocating under the weight of state-imposed measures that curtail our freedoms. Now, it is becoming even more increasingly intolerable by freedoms being systematically stripped away through legislation enacted without due diligence. Legitimate security concerns should be addressed through well-considered laws that balance national security with the protection of citizens’ rights. Any kind of haphazard manner of implementing such measures would only serve to undermine public trust and raise legitimate grievances. The state’s actions must be transparent, accountable, and respectful of the fundamental rights of its people to avoid eroding the very fabric of democracy and freedom – as well as national security.