The News on Sunday has interviewed Imran Riaz, the head of Federal Investigation Agency Cyber Crime Zone Sindh to explore the structural challenges in the Pakistani cyber space and the roadmap devised by the state to address it.
The News on Sunday (TNS): Please tell us about the measures being taken under your charge to ensure women’s safety in Pakistani cyberspace. Are legal lacunae hindering substantive investigations?
Imran Riaz (IR): Lack of adequate resources is our biggest challenge. The cyberspace is huge; too large in view of the resources at hand. My technical team working on the cybercrimes domain has as many as 400 people. Deterrence is my priority. We want to address the root cause of the crime before its actualization. Raising awareness is the biggest step in that regard. It is unfortunate that many people are not aware of the cybercrime laws in the country. It is due to this lack of knowledge that some people start taking cyberspace as an open-for-everything play area. Harassment cases are on the rise primarily due to the egoistic behaviours of some people. The criminals use explicit videos and pictures to blackmail internet users and extort money. We are about to launch an e-book, listing every cybercrime and explaining it pictorially: from harassment to financial fraud. We have seen people harassing women after making false promises of employment and modelling opportunities. We will explain this in our book and send it to the mailing lists of various organisations and academic institutions – so that their managements are aware of the current trends in cyberspace. People assume that there are no punishments for cybercrimes. This assumption is far from fact. We are also making animations on this subject and will float the content with the help of social media influencers and celebrities. Lastly, we have informally started our cyber eye project – it is a cyber-intelligence network. People can inform me about private messages on Instagram and Twitter if they come across any transgression. The operation has been started informally. We are in the process of formalising it.
TNS: Can you please share with us data on convictions, FIRs and processes under way with regards to cyber harassment?
IR: There are two types of offences – cognizable and non-cognizable matters. FIRs are not instantly registered for non-cognizable offences. For a cognizabale offence, we can arrest the suspect right away. Under the PECA laws, Section 21 deals with issues related to modesty; for instance, the spread of nude pictures. Anybody accused of such an activity can be arrested immediately. Cyber terrorism and child pornography are cognizable offences too. Nearly 150 FIRs have been registered in Sindh since January 2021. Around 600 people are being investigated for non-cognizable matters.
TNS: Just 150 FIRs from all over the Sindh in 14 months?
IR: There is a reason for it. A majority of the women complaining to us don’t want to pursue the cases. In most cases the offenders are former friends. They don’t want to be involved in court procedures because then their families will get to know about it. They primarily want the FIA to summon the accused and delete the content from the offenders’ phones. People from all walks of life approach us, including some from conservative families. There is a strong apprehension that if the relationship becomes known to the family more undesirable consequences might follow. The 150 FIRs represent the women who showed the willingness to take their cases to the court. We have brought relief to at least 600 women who did not want the matter to become public. Once a matter goes before a court, it cannot be stopped from being public.
Convictions take time. Judgments are currently being announced on the cases registered in 2018-19. Partly because this is a new field, the judges are taking their time learning to understand the technical evidence. There were 15 convictions in 2021 on the basis of FIRs registered in 2018-19. There is also the issue of out-of-court settlement.
TNS: Can you please tell us about the convictions?
IR: Convictions take time. Judgments are currently being announced on the cases registered in 2018-19. Partly because this is a new field, the judges are taking their time learning to understand the technical evidence. There were 15 convictions in 2021 on the basis of FIRs registered in 2018-19. There is also the issue of out-of-court settlement. What has changed is that the things have started rolling. I think we have to look beyond convictions. When a teenage girl is harassed, it is difficult for her and her family but at the same time, the accused is also a teenager. Of course, this is no justification for the crime. It is our social responsibility to return the people to the right track.
TNS: What were the key areas or challenges you worked on after taking charge?
IR: The biggest challenge we face is the access to Facebook and Instagram data. There is no mutual legal assistance agreement for exchange of information between Pakistan and the United States of America. As all the social media giants are based in the USA, we have to contact them to get information about suspects in harassment cases. Ours is a multi-cultural society. There are several kinds of mindsets. We come across some people who’d be willing to kill entire families over a picture showing uncovered feet. The legal team at Facebook has yet to appreciate the cultural differences between their society and Pakistan. Delay in the provision of data causes problems for us. They do provide data on harassment, child pornography, extortion and suicide calls. We have taken the matter up at the government level as well. We have recommended that the social media tech companies should have offices in Pakistan. However, there has been no substantial progress in this regard.
TNS: Are you satisfied with the performance of the judiciary with regard to cybercrimes?
IR: I have seen that the judiciary has learned fast. Special days have been allocated for hearing of cybercrimes cases. For the last two, three weeks the District East Karachi court has dedicated entire Thursdays to hearing of cybercrime cases. The judges have been supportive. That is how the convictions have started. We should have special courts because the field is huge. Tech crime is going to increase. Hence more resources are needed to deal with it.
We are low on human resources. We have 70 to 80 officers in Sindh but the government is quite serious about this. We are in the process of inducting more than 1,100 officers all over Pakistan. But I believe the buck stops at the structural policy level.
TNS: Have there been child pornography rackets in Sindh? In Karachi?
IR: We have not come across any. US-based National Centre for Exploited Children monitors cyber space in collaboration with YouTube and Facebook. Possession of child pornographic content in a considerable volume generates a report on cyber tip line that shows pin location to our headquarters in Islamabad. The possession indicates that the people holding the images have a tendency for child exploitation. We arrest them immediately.
TNS: How many investigative officers are working under your command?
IR: We are low on human resources. We have 70 to 80 officers in Sindh but the government is quite serious about this. We are in the process of inducting more than 1,100 officers all over Pakistan. But I believe the buck stops at the structural policy level. If we received a complaint about harassment and we track the SIM and it is being used illegally in someone else’s name, what do we do? We are focusing now policy decisions.
TNS: A court recently noted that 1,200 cases related to cybercrimes were pending. Isn’t that a big number?
IR: Frequently we do not get prompt responses from social media tech companies. In some cases, the complainants are not interested in pursuing the case beyond a certain point. We keep calling them but they don’t show up.
TNS: Do you think that more legislation is needed under PECA laws?
IR: Yes, more legislations is needed. It is a weak law. Many of the sections are non-cognizable, we need to make them cognizable.
The interviewer is a human rights reporter based in Karachi. He covers conflict, environment and culture