Pakistan’s country-wide lockdown, which was put in place in response to the coronavirus pandemic, has been lifted. Despite this COVID-19 cases in Pakistan have soared, reaching 252,982 as of Tuesday.
In an attempt to combat the extremely contagious virus, Pakistan announced a new track and trace system delivered to them by the country’s military-run spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). This system was originally intended for terrorism but, as PM Imran Kahn put it, “now it has come in useful against the coronavirus”.
Digital rights activists such as the Digital Rights Foundation are concerned that the enlisting of its military-run security agency in the fight against coronavirus might lead to more surveillance beyond the pandemic, calling the move a “worrying development that impedes the right to privacy of its citizens,” reports Slate.
These concerns are not unwarranted, given the ambiguity surrounding the technology. All that is known so far is that it uses a geofencing tracking system to alert authorities when someone leaves a specific geographic area as well as call-monitoring mechanisms. According to Voa News, “Pakistan’s intelligence agencies have often been accused of forced disappearances, harassment, blackmailing and coercion by activists and rights groups that are critical of the state’s policies, such as the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement and Voice of Baloch Missing Persons”.
Since March, the government’s Digital Pakistan program has sent more than 500,000 text messages to suspected coronavirus patients, warning them to self-isolate. A government official has confirmed on Twitter that the call records of more than 250,000 people diagnosed with COVID-19 have been used to “identify close contacts” who may also have been infected
Talking to Slate, digital rights expert Hija Kamran said, “At the end of the day, what the government wants is access to all the data that is supposedly hidden from them.
“The ISI’s involvement in track and trace, the lack of information regarding the technology or method they are using to monitor and track suspected patients, and the push to register VPNs are all interconnected dots pointing towards one large goal: the erosion of privacy and the ability to track all citizens.”