The Tech Herald

Pakistan bans online encryption for the good of state security

by Steve Ragan - Aug 31 2011, 09:00

Pakistan bans online encryption. Image: Rpongsaj/Flickr.

A new order issued to ISPs from the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) directs them to block all encrypted traffic on their networks. A PTA spokesperson told local media the reasoning was to prevent militants from using VPN traffic to coordinate themselves.

According to a memo sent to ISPs, the PTA has ordered them to immediately block and prohibit the use of “…all such mechanisms including encrypted virtual private networks (EVPNs) which conceal communication to the extent that prohibits monitoring.”

The new order is in line with the Monitoring and Reconciliation of Telephony Traffic Regulations, which were established in 2010. In the letter to ISPs outlining the halt on encryption, they were told that the “…aforementioned directive has not been followed in true letter and spirit as EVPNs are heavily being used on the Licensees Network.”

According to the wording of the Monitoring and Reconciliation of Telephony Traffic Regulations, the licensee (ISP) is to ensure that, out of their own pocket, they install and maintain monitoring systems tied to the PTA. These systems are to monitor voice and data traffic in real-time, and the ISP cannot otherwise filter or block traffic, unless the Authority (PTA) orders it.

In addition, the ISP is to ensure that “…signaling information is uncompressed, unencrypted, and not formatted in a manner which the installed monitoring system is unable to decipher using installed capabilities.”

If that is not possible, the ISP will need to let the traffic pass and do whatever is necessary, including purchasing format conversion tools and hardware, so that the traffic is able to be properly monitored.

According to the PTA, the block on encryption is aimed at preventing militants from using secure communications when they coordinate. However, the PTA representative also noted that average citizens will be caught in the middle, unable to use VPN software to surf the Web in private.

In the past, Pakistan has blocked Facebook and YouTube, over disputes with content, but news of the VPN blocks emerged as an insider at an Islamabad ISP admitted that they could not block a single URL on RollingStone.com. Instead, when one article was deemed offensive because of its author, they filtered the entire domain.

With competence like that, one has to wonder how effective the monitoring and VPN restrictions really are.

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