Problems with PTA’s VPN Registration

by

Saihaj Shahbaz Butt

On 10th June, Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) made a press release confirming that they will be continuing their (Virtual Private Network) VPN registration process.

If all VPNs require registration, this is truly petrifying & is a blatant attempt by PTA to tighten their grip at the cost of civil liberties; and needs to be opposed. VPN registration is a violation of privacy & leaves our information susceptible to abuse.

The following six points will be covered:

1) What happens while using VPNs

2) VPN registration & public surveillance

3) Monitoring common Pakistanis

4) Vague PTA guidelines

5) Targeting dissidents

6) Need for transparency

1) What happens while using VPNs:

Common users connecting to a VPN server are typically doing so for either of the two purposes:
– accessing data that is locally blocked or unavailable.
– protecting their identity.

When connected to a VPN:
– your ISP (Internet Service Provider) cannot view your activity since data is encrypted.
– your VPN service providers can see every action that they are performing.

The remaining piece will elaborate on why the second point above is a cause of grave concern for all Pakistani citizens.

2) VPN Registration & Public Surveillance:

Registering your VPN would not only link the exact VPN service you’ve subscribed to your identity in the government’s database, but will allow them to request & access data about you at will – data that you want to protect from them. Non-compliant VPN service providers can have their services blocked by the government. VPN registration is a public surveillance tool which asks for our trust & then infringes liberties in return.

Registration of VPNs is refusal to allow open access to information & sets a dangerous & unethical precedent of trapping VPN users by providing them a false sense of security while browsing. Thought your data tunnel is encrypted? The government can access it now! It is only a matter of time till our government contacts VPN service providers (especially free ones) and demands information from them that you have every right to keep private.

3) Monitoring Pakistani citizens:

Registering VPNs defeats the purpose of using one. Online content is blocked by the government because they do not want you to access it. It potentially compromises on anonymity & allows the government to monitor content the user has accessed, which is the user’s right.

Empirically speaking, most users in Pakistan use free VPN applications & this is an immediate cause for alarm. A sizeable chunk is ignorant about how pop-up ads work, let alone realising how free VPNs incorporate data collection & data-selling into business models.

With free VPN services being used in abundance, the state can freely:
– have agreements with the VPN service providers identified.
– identify & block their servers.
– silently monitor users’ activities without user consent or knowledge.

As evident, there is no winning here for internet users.

4) Vague PTA guidelines:

PTA’s unclear guidelines set the basis for our state to punish users for any action deemed fair by them to be categorised as ‘illegal traffic’. All instances of ‘illegal traffic’ must be explicitly defined to prevent abuse of power.

PTA’s objectives & procedures remain unclear, & no proactive approach has been adopted to properly advertise their message to promote VPN registration. The public is unaware yet PTA has only provided a modest four-week registration window.

The most frightening part is that these unclear guidelines can be left in their present state or be later expanded upon to hand the government more unchecked autonomy to define & act upon what does and does not qualify as free speech.

5) Targeting dissidents:

Assuming that all VPNs must be registered, this unfortunately appears to be a step to unveil identities of anonymous, critical, dissenting user accounts on social media who depend on anonymity granted to them by VPNs. These users are highly vulnerable, cannot speak out in real life due to repercussions, & keep discourse ablaze on sensitive subjects that would otherwise flatten out. This is unacceptable & awareness must be spread about it.

Pakistan has an extensive history of cracking down on dissidents through enforced disappearances, narrowing down patriotic definitions to put individuals at risk, & delivering mob justice upon accusation. VPN registration can be misused to increase & legitimise instances of such nature in the future.

6) Need for transparency:

Without reasonable justifications, this would mark another stride towards heightening surveillance, free speech infringement, & authoritarianism. SOPs of government-deployed COVID-19 tracking systems remain unknown too. More information on: https://www.dawn.com/news/1552299/tracking-covid-19

While this may not be their intent, PTA has shown no transparency & is yet to communicate why registering VPNs is suddenly necessary. Who is it for? What information are they seeking? How do they intend to use this information? It is our right to know under Article 19-A.

Do remember that Pakistan frequently exercises liberty to block websites (notably political) that do not suit their agenda. Pakistan must not employ sinister methods to surveil citizens, but most signs point towards them doing so until further clarification is issued.

Finally, I conclude with two statements:

The gap between the state & VPN service providers should never be bridged.

If our suspicions prove to be true, this is an attack on our liberties & our public is blissfully unaware of the consequences this will have.

Footnotes regarding VPNs:

Using VPNs does not guarantee security. Selecting secure & reliable VPN service providers can be a challenge in itself. These companies are aware of your true IP address & can map your browsing activity onto it.

Free VPNs are notorious for selling your information & bandwidth to parties unknown to you. An example of this is Hola VPN. Hola VPN is a free VPN service provider which sells its users’ bandwidth. The implications will terrify you. More information on: https://www.theverge.com/2015/5/29/8685251/hola-vpn-botnet-selling-users-bandwidth

Please use VPN services that clearly outline their policies for data collection, deletion, & sharing processes.

Saihaj is a Computer Science major who follows politics & firmly believes in the protection of human rights.

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