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Pakistan Authorizes Spy Agency to Intercept Phone Calls and Messages

The federal government has granted Pakistan’s premier spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the authority to intercept phone calls and messages “in the interest of national security,”.

The spotlight on surveillance by spy agencies intensified following the release of audio clips of former Prime Minister Imran Khan and his wife Bushra Khan on social media before the February 8 general elections. Bushra and others petitioned the Islamabad High Court, challenging the unauthorized surveillance and privacy breaches. During the hearings, it emerged that the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) had required telecom companies to fund, import, and install a mass surveillance system to access citizens’ data.

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“In exercise of the powers conferred under section 54 of the Pakistan Telecommunication (Re-organization) Act, 1996 (the Act), the Federal Government, in the interest of national security and in the apprehension of any offense, is pleased to authorize officers not below the rank of grade 18, nominated from time to time by Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), to intercept calls and messages or trace calls through any telecommunication system as envisaged under Section 54 of the Act,” the notification issued by the Ministry of Information Technology on July 8 stated.

Section 54 of the PTA Act addresses national security and allows such intercepts, although it does not specify the agency or the rank of officials authorized to issue the surveillance orders.

Omar Ayub Khan, the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, condemned the government notification, labeling it a “black law.” “Everything can be tapped for national security,” he told reporters. “There is no clear definition of national security. It could be anything. Remember, this will be a black law.”

Established in 1948, the ISI gained prominence and power during the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and is now regarded as one of the most well-organized intelligence agencies in the developing world.