PTA Ramps Up Web Monitoring in Pakistan Amid Privacy Protests 

The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has announced its plans to enhance its Web Monitoring System (WMS).

The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) has announced its plans to enhance its Web Monitoring System (WMS). The upgrade, confirmed to leverage Deep Packet Inspection technology, is expected to result in more internet disruptions, particularly with the upcoming general elections.

The WMS, a surveillance infrastructure designed to monitor internet traffic, was acquired from the Canadian firm Sandvine in 2019 for approximately $18 million. This system allows the PTA to exercise gateway-level control over internet access, enabling the implementation of blocking and censorship measures.

Geo Fact Check raised inquiries with the PTA regarding the timing of the ongoing upgrade, which coincidentally aligns with the upcoming national elections. Critics argue that the internet disruptions resulting from the upgrade could hinder Pakistani voters’ access to crucial election-related information.

A spokesperson for the PTA responded by stating that the WMS deployment had been in progress since December 2023. The official asserted that the upgrade is necessary to comply with various court orders related to objectionable internet content, including blasphemous content under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act 2016.

However, the response from the PTA has faced criticism from digital rights activists, including prominent figure Usama Khilji. Khilji expressed concerns over what he deemed an inconsistent response marked by contradictions. He questioned the PTA’s explanation, stating, “First, the PTA says that the deployment [of the WMS] is happening on the internet submarine cable but then it blames telecom operators, so which is it?”

Khilji highlighted the fact that under the WMS, telecom operators have limited influence, and it is the PTA that directly controls and blocks content through the internet cable. He also pointed out the peculiar timing of internet disruptions, noting that they occurred primarily during online events organized by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).

Moreover, Khilji questioned why the PTA had not taken advantage of opportunities to carry out the WMS upgrade during the coalition government’s tenure from April 2022 to August 2023 or during the transitional phase when the caretaker government assumed control in August.

Ahmed Shamim Pirzada, the Director General of the government-owned PTA, addressed the media on January 22nd, attributing recent nationwide internet slowdowns to “technical glitches” stemming from the ongoing software update. However, skeptics argue that the explanation lacks transparency and raises further questions about the motives behind the Web Monitoring System upgrade.

As the controversy unfolds, concerns are mounting over the potential impact of internet disruptions on the democratic process in Pakistan. Digital rights advocates are closely monitoring the situation, calling for transparency and accountability in the PTA’s actions to ensure that citizens have unrestricted access to information, especially during a critical time like elections.