The U.S. and U.K. stole data of Pakistan citizens to easily track Pakistanis suspected of being involved in terrorism, claims WikiLeaks, citing its cable in 2009 [09ISLAMABAD1642] from the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad.
Although this grabbed global headlines back in 2011 – when the revelations were originally made by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange – the document resurfaced all over the media on Tuesday, June 6, when WikiLeaks Twitter account alleged in a tweet that the National Security Agency (NSA) and the MI6 Secret Intelligence Service set up a front company to “steal all of Pakistan’s voters.”
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) June 6, 2017
While the motivations behind the U.S. and U.K. allegedly stealing data of Pakistan citizens are unclear – whether it’s to track down Pakistanis involved in terrorism or possibly even meddle in the Pakistani election process – WikiLeaks seems confident about the NSA and MI6 setting up a front company – the International Identity Services – to allegedly penetrate the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), which holds Pakistani citizens’ identification records.
The WikiLeaks cable does not specify if the U.S. and U.K. access to the NADRA system was full or only partial and for what purposes the foreign powers would need data of Pakistani citizens. While one can argue that this was done with the purpose to track Pakistani citizens with suspected links to terrorism, let’s not forget that this was allegedly the year 2009, two years before the international community started accusing Pakistan of being involved in terrorism in the wake of U.S. NAVY SEALs killing al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
The WikiLeaks cable in 2009 from the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad also claims that then Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and then Interior Minister Rehman Malik voluntarily offered to share NADRA records with the U.S. out of gratitude to the U.S. for aiding Pakistan. In a move that was branded by many Pakistanis as “treason,” the Prime Minister and the Interior Minister allegedly offered to share personal data of millions of Pakistanis to U.S. spy agencies.
WikiLeaks also claims that Gilani allegedly suggested cooking up a formal deal with the U.S. to make the transfer of NADRA records to U.S. spy agencies legal and save his the Pakistan Peoples’ Party government from any embarrassment and accusations of treason. Shortly after the WikiLeaks revelations were made public in 2011, NADRA issued a statement denying the allegations and saying that its massive database of Pakistani citizens cannot be replicated or shared with any country or entity no matter what the individual’s authority or position requesting to compromise NADRA records is.
While sharing NADRA records, which contain all kinds of personal data about Pakistani citizens, would be deemed a national treason, it’s unclear what a foreign power – be it the U.S. or U.K. – could be planning to do with such a massive database of Pakistani citizens or why such records would be useful to the U.S. or U.K. spy agencies. Again, if it has anything to do with terrorism – then it’s a little illogical, given that Pakistan was not accused of sheltering terrorist elements until after May 2011 (two years after NADRA records were allegedly “stolen” by the Americans and Britons), unless – of course – the U.S. had undisclosed, classified information suggesting that Pakistan allegedly had ties to terrorism back in 2009.
Debunking the myth of US ‘stealing’ Pakistani personal data
What furthermore raises eyebrows is that the WikiLeaks revelations about – the U.S. and U.K. spy agencies allegedly stealing Pakistani citizens’ data as well as the Pakistani government allegedly offering to share NADRA records with the U.S. – were made by Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, during his interview with Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chairman Imran Khan.
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While Assange seems to be directly accusing the U.S. and U.K. of “stealing” data of Pakistan citizens and the Pakistani government giving access to NADRA records to Washington, nowhere does the actual WikiLeaks 2009 cable make either of the two allegations.
All the WikiLeaks document says is that the Pakistani government offered to “share NADRA-generated information on Pakistani citizens, within the constraints imposed by privacy concerns.” As far as the cable’s revelations go, no personal data of Pakistani citizens was ever shared.
As for the U.S. and U.K allegedly “stealing” NADRA records, all the document says about the U.S. is that the Pakistani Interior Minister “agreed to set up a joint U.S.-Pakistan task force to work out a way forward.” The document does, however, allege that there were plans between the Interior Minister and then Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano to share Passenger Name Records (PNR) with the U.S. However, the document says that “the possibility of sharing PNR data on passengers traveling to and from Pakistan to the U.S. and Canada” had been “submitted for legal review,” suggesting that any transfers of Pakistani personal data would be legal and made public.
Was any data of Pakistani citizens even stolen?
As far as the WikiLeaks document goes (not Assange’s interview with Khan), no personal data of Pakistani citizens was ever shared with the U.S. – or even if it was, it was not massive and done only on “a case-by-case basis,” as the document alleges that “Pakistan is already sharing some individual passenger data on a case-by-case basis on flights to Europe.”
Interestingly, the WikiLeaks document does not contain any information about the U.S. and U.K. spy agencies setting up a front company in the U.K. to “steal” data of Pakistani citizens. It seems that the claims were made only during Assange’s interview with Khan, and there is no evidence – or even a WikiLeaks document – to back up the allegations. It’s unclear what were Assange’s motivations behind alleging things that were never published in WikiLeaks documents or if the WikiLeaks founder actually shared the information that allegedly took place but was never published by WikiLeaks.
Although Assange’s claims of the U.S. and U.K. allegedly stealing Pakistani citizens personal records has Pakistan all fired up – especially given the rather chilly relations between Washington and Islamabad lately as well as considering that Pakistanis are about to go general election in 2018 – until there’s no evidence, Assange’s claims remain conspiracy theories only.