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ISLAMABAD (9 November 2015) – Bytes for All (B4A), Pakistan and the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) are extremely concerned about a recent initiative by the Pakistani government to install at least 2,000 surveillance cameras across the federal capital.

B4A and APC express deep concern that the “Islamabad Safe City Project”, an initiative of Pakistan’s Ministry of Interior and the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), will make Pakistani citizens increasingly vulnerable to mass digital surveillance practices and other violations against their right to privacy.

The project, funded by the Chinese government, consists of highly sophisticated technology equipped with high resolution 32-megapixel static and rotating cameras capable of recognising facial features. All these cameras will be linked to a central control and command system, further linked with NADRA’s massive national citizen biometric database.

The new surveillance camera network gives authorities the capability to amass detailed records of where, when and with whom virtually every resident of and visitor to Islamabad has travelled within the city, even though the overwhelming majority of them are under no suspicion of having committed any crime.

B4A and APC believe that it is not such a digital surveillance system, but rather effective and sincere security measures on the ground, that will ensure the security of the citizens. In an environment where highhandedness of law-enforcing agencies is rampant, deploying a network of surveillance cameras will only strengthen the culture of impunity that the local authorities enjoy. There are ample examples from other countries where such systems have been subject to more violations than serving security needs.

Respecting the right to privacy and anonymity and freedom from surveillance is particularly important in the case of women, young girls, journalists, human rights defenders, minorities, and other marginalised groups who face threats and attacks because of their gender orientation, religion or beliefs. This surveillance system, which includes grey areas regarding data handling and retention, will only endanger these vulnerable groups even further.

Pakistan is a country without any individual protections when it comes to data security. Pakistan is also a “third-party” ally in the Five Eyes Alliance, and known to be cooperating with the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) and GCHQ, the United Kingdom’s mass surveillance programme.

The fact that NADRA would be the custodian of the huge amounts of private data collected under this project heightens concerns about its security, due to the numerous allegations of corruption against individuals at NADRA.

The surveillance technology for this project is being supplied by Huawei, and according to media reports, the Chinese government threatened to withdraw its funding for all ongoing projects in the country if the Pakistani government does not purchase the equipment from the Chinese electronics manufacturer. It is worth noting that Huawei has been known in the past to build “back doors” in its products, compromising the privacy and security of all of its users. Back doors undermine the security of all users online, and should be avoided at all costs. Eager to implement this project, the Pakistani government decided to waive the Public Procurement Regulatory Authority (PPRA) rules and ended up signing an agreement with the Chinese company.

With all the concerns mentioned above, we call on the government of Pakistan to urgently stop this mass digital surveillance programme against its own citizens until the layers of secrecy around the project are removed and it is brought under some form of public accountability.

Additionally, we urgently call on the Parliamentary Committees on Law, Justice and Human Rights to take notice of this and also urge the National Commission for Human Rights to conduct an independent inquiry on the pros and cons of this project.

We reiterate our call to appoint and establish a competent, independent and well-resourced Privacy Commissioner, as many developed democracies have already done, to protect and uphold the privacy rights of the citizens of Pakistan.