• February 23, 2024

Leaking

The priorities of a nation define its future. Let’s consider ours. The country’s poor people are telling you they are sunk, and if the flood were not enough, shrinking purchasing power would likely kill them. The elites of the country and the media tell you there is only one topic of discussion that matters — Imran Khan. The country’s religious elite agree that there is only one topic worth discussing.

Only it is not Mr Khan’s politics but the transgender bill. Go figure. In the middle of all this devastation and the fear of bankruptcy began the drip-drip-drip of the leaks. And instead of being appalled by the scope of the hacks, everyone seems over the moon. We are already addicted to change and scandals. But how would you justify the warmth spreading in your heart while thinking that even though your entire neighbourhood is being robbed, your ostentatious rich neighbour will lose more than everyone else?

There is something peculiar about the Pakistani discourse that hits the target but misses the point. And our limbic brains never seem to have a shortage of targets. As you get ready to target your opponent, you prepare to receive some blows in return too. But that is precisely the problem. What you do to each other is your mutual issue, but in these tribal wars, the country loses the most. For instance, as the PTI and the ruling coalition try to shine light on the contents of the leaks emanating from the rival camp, the fact remains that they all (at least the ones we know of) came from the same building. The prime minister’s office.

The sanctum sanctorum of Pakistani political hierarchy. While the residents may change from time to time, there is only one PMO in Pakistan. The seat of power. The house of privileged information and official secrets. And the fact that such a vitally important place is not safe from hacking should give everyone a headache. But that realization seems to have taken a back seat to accommodate our tribal wars. Make no mistakes. I do not deny the importance or the troublesome nature of the content itself, far from it. Given the gravity of the political situation, that, too, needs to be investigated.

But please understand a principle-centred concern I have been raising for years now. When the Panama Papers leak surfaced, I questioned the wisdom of treating stolen information as evidence. Granted, to make it more legally palatable, a joint investigation team (JIT) was formed. But since the JIT was created as a consequence of our Supreme Court taking up the case, it is clear that it attached some value to the evidence mentioned above, which was essentially a product of theft. That case, unfortunately, seems loaded with exceptions.

Treating hacked information as evidence. The creation of the JIT itself. A Supreme Court Justice being asked to supervise the proceedings of a lower court. We create exceptions when there are not enough rules. Writing laws and codifying rules is the parliament’s job. And for some unknown reason, the parliament seems to be failing to protect its domain from the judiciary and the executive as new precedents and executive actions, not to mention ordinances, chip away at its authority. Historians usually view such exceptions as nothing short of political expediency. We are where we are because of that. Stolen information is stolen information, after all. Back to the leaks.

For a while, someone or something seemed to have turned off the leaky faucet. But that was not for want of demand. Our media pundits seem to love the leaks, and in the absence of fresh dollops of salacious information, they resorted to projecting their own wishes onto leaks. Barbaad gulistan karne ko bas ek hi ullu kafi tha Har shaakh pe ullu baitha hai anjam-e-gulistan kya hoga (An owl is enough to destroy a garden, what will be the fate of the garden now that an owl is sitting on every branch) Let me be honest.

When the first recorded conversation surfaced, my mind immediately went to the NSO Group’s Pegasus software. If you recall, on 31st July last year, in my piece titled ‘The myth of privacy’, I discussed the Pegasus scandal in considerable detail. To recap, it is Israeli software purchased, among others, by the Indian government to snoop on its own citizens and others. Somehow former PM Imran Khan’s one mobile number ended up on the target list. The software drops a bug into your phone, which in turn can access and export all data and even activate the camera and the mic.

Spooky, right? But something doesn’t add up. Hacking a single premier’s phone isn’t a cakewalk. And here, the leaks involved two prime ministers, two principal secretaries, and a few others. Ostensibly these are not telephonic conversations, and we can’t be sure that even a single smartphone was present in the room. So what gives? Could it be conventional snooping equipment? Sure, but relevant intelligence agencies usually sweep the place daily to detect any planted bugs.

When we cannot find any other explanations, we all return to our choicest hobby horses. What if one of these agencies was recording all such conversations, backing them up on a server, and one day a disgruntled employee walked away with some of this data on a memory stick? Unlikely. Agencies have rigorous procedures to ensure that no information leaves their premises without due diligence and usual precautions. Also, installing a surveillance system at the PMO would involve the risk of detection, which could lead to awkward questions and situations.

Also, a 24-hour, 365-day surveillance effort would generate enough white noise to make the risk/reward equation prohibitive. All of this can be investigated by a high-powered committee. And mercifully, we have heard that the heads of our two main agencies will join such a committee. But given that the paranoia surrounding potential snooping attempts has been around since Yousuf Raza Gillani’s tenure as PM when late Rahman Malik complained about foreign elements using hi-tech equipment to spy on the PM Office, I wonder why nobody offered simple solutions.

Installing a Faraday’s cage large enough to seat a few individuals inside for confidential meeting purposes ought to take care of the wireless attempts to spy on the conversation. And even though a PM should have a locally secured smartphone or then outdated flip phone for personal calls, if Pegasus or similar malware worries you while using a standard mobile, restarting it at least once a day and preferably before every important call may keep such bugs away.

First published on October 08, 2022

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