Bolo Bhi has filed Right to Information (RTI) requests to inquire about surveillance and web filtering equipment reportedly acquired by the Government of Pakistan. The RTI seeks information regarding specific laws under which surveillance & filtering equipment has been acquired. We have asked for information such as purchase orders, cost of equipment, gazette notifications, and takedown procedures.
Specifically, the requests seek an official response on the alleged presence of Finfisher, a digital surveillance software, and Netsweeper, a URL filtration system as reported by the Toronto-based Citizen Lab (there has been no official confirmation or denial so far by the government). According to media reports, the Netsweeper system that the government has installed costs millions of dollars. Bolo Bhi has also written to the Canadian Government about Canada based company Netsweeper that has reportedly sold filtration equipment to Pakistan, and we are currently in correspondence with them too.
The applications have been filed under the Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002. Pakistanis gained the Right to Information through Article 19-A of the 18th Constitutional Amendment, 2010. Under clause 3 and 7 of the Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002:
3. Access to information not to be denied.-
(1) Notwithstanding anything contained in any other law for the time being in force, and subject to the provisions of this Ordinance, no requester shall be denied access to any official record other than exemptions as provided in section 15.
(2) This Ordinance shall be interpreted so as
(ii) to facilitate and encourage, promptly and at the lowest reasonable cost, the disclosure of
7. Declaration of public record.– Subject to the provision of section 8, the following record of all public bodies are hereby declared to be the public record, namely:-
(b) transactions involving acquisition and disposal of properly and expenditure undertaken by a
public body in the performance of its duties;
(c) information regarding grant of licenses, allotments and other benefits and privileges and
contract and agreements made by a public body;
(d) final orders and decisions, including decisions relating to members of public; and
(e) any other record which may be notified by the Federal Government as public record ‘for the
purposes of this Ordinance,
Apart from it being the citizens right to know, it is also important to note that web filtration systems affect internet connectivity and speed, and speech, access and privacy rights. Such equipment has, and can be used by the government to suppress social and political speech. Further, surveillance systems invade the privacy of citizens. In the past, various agencies have been known to tap phones and emails of political leaders, including Members of National Assembly.
Bolo Bhi has filed this complaint because the Government of Pakistan, as a democratically-elected government, must practice transparency and be accountable to its citizens. Any steps the government takes that directly impact citizens and are paid for by the taxpayers’ money, need to be public knowledge.