Pakistan’s new online tax profiling portal sparks data privacy fears

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A policeman walks past the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) office building in Islamabad, August 29, 2018. REUTERS
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The national flag is seen on the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) office building in Karachi, Pakistan August 29, 2018. (REUTERS/File)
Updated 23 June 2019

Pakistan’s new online tax profiling portal sparks data privacy fears

  • Personal data of 53 million people uploaded to a new tax database accessible through a national ID card number
  • Legal experts call the system unsafe, unconstitutional, in violation of privacy rights

KARACHI: Pakistan’s new tax profiling system has raised widespread fears of data security breaches, with citizens saying sensitive data uploaded on the portal may be misused and legal experts calling it unconstitutional and in violation of the fundamental right to privacy.
The two online portals, unveiled on Friday by the Federal Board of Revenue, hold information regarding the bank accounts, properties, travel history, and other data of at least 53 million Pakistanis, collected from Pakistan’s primary citizenry database, the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA).
The tax portal comes on the back of the annual budget announced earlier this month which targets a sharp hike in tax revenues for the new fiscal year to June 2020. Ending a culture of rampant tax evasion is also high on the list of conditionalities attached to a $6 billion International Monetary Fund bailout package (IMF) that cash-strapped Pakistan agreed to last month.
Pakistan’s history is littered with statements by incoming governments announcing crackdowns and pledging tax reforms that fizzle out because of a lack of political will to force the rich and powerful to pay taxes.
As of last year, only 1.6 million people filed tax returns in a country of 208 million. Out of them, 400,000 showed income below the levels that tax cuts in, another 200,000 had minimal tax, and only 950,000 paid tax of any significance.
“Just checked it out. Security is too weak. Should require payment by a card in the name of the payer — as email verification possible if mobile not in taxpayer name,” marketing consultant Assad Ahmad said on Twitter. “Just got my data without giving a phone number registered in my name and answering simple questions about family.”
Experts are similarly alarmed.
“When over 100 million Pakistani citizens were disclosing their private data to NADRA, the understanding was that NADRA would use it only for issuing them an identity card, and not betray them to the tax-man,” Umer Gilani, a lawyer who campaigns for the protection of privacy, told Arab News. “NADRA’s decision to merge its database with FBR’s database is unconstitutional. It violates the fundamental right to privacy guaranteed by Article 14 of Pakistan’s Constitution,” he said, adding that Pakistan’s courts had consistently ruled that the right to privacy extended to the privacy of people’s data.
Sharing NADRA data with tax authorities and uploading it on what he called “a low security online portal” breached confidentiality, and was unsafe, Gilani said.
The FBR insists the data is safe.
“We will ensure the security of the data,” FBR chief, Syed Shabbar Zaidi told reporters on Friday. “The data will be kept centralized at FBR headquarters, even away from regional tax offices,”
Few are not convinced.
“The concerns are that in the absence of data privacy laws, the data the government is collecting through different sources... where will it be utilized and who is authorized to use it?” Dr. Umair Javed, a professor of politics at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), told Arab News.
According to Javed, the new Pakistan system has borrowed heavily from the blueprint of the United States’ Internal Revenue Services (IRS) which also employs different sources to collect data about citizens.
“Is the government prepared to guarantee its (data’s) security and privacy is the biggest question despite their good intentions and purpose,” he said.
A draft law for personal data protection is pending legislation since October last year, while the government has launched a huge online portal packed full of accessible citizen data with effectively no data privacy laws in place.
“In case of any security lapse, (there) would be dire consequences,” Badar Khushnood, Vice Chairman of the award-winning Pakistan Software Houses Association for IT and ITES ([email protected]), told Arab News. “The law should have been passed before launching the system for the clarity of data privacy,” he said.
Dr. Ikram ul Haq, a legal and taxation expert agreed.
“Security review by independent agencies renowned for awarding certifications is missing... There is no guarantee that data would not be misused or abused by the staff with access to it,” he said.
“It (profiling system) is a good thing, but it must be ensured that the information is not leaked and misused for extortion or... blackmailing,” said Dr. Mirza Ikhtiar Baig, Senior VP at the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry. “Our concern is that it could be leaked and harm any concerned individual.”
Fears of a massive data leak are not unwarranted. In 2018, a cyber-security services provider, the Pakistan Computer Emergency Response Team (PakCERT), reported 1,340 cases of website defacement and hacker attacks on Pakistani web domains (.pk).
“The .pk domain was attacked all over the world where it is being hosted or operated. The data only shows that websites were attacked and not necessarily reflect that the inside of the organizations’ systems were attacked,” Qazi Mohammad Misbahuddin Ahmed, CEO of PakCERT told Arab News. “If the security of the system is properly audited then there (is) no breach,” he said, adding that he assumed the government would have put security controls in place for the tax profiling portal.
There are additional concerns including that it might not take a sophisticated software hacker to break into the system, and that anybody with access to another person’s identity card could get hold of the information by paying a Rs.500 (approx $3) fee.
“The government has made it a source of making money by charging us for our own information,” [email protected]’s Badar Khushnood said. “By using NIC (national identity card) of any other person, anyone can get registered with the portal and get information,” he said, adding that the system could be useful in the documentation of the country’s vast informal economy only if its security protocols were made foolproof.

Pakistan will talk to India if Kashmir autonomy reverses, foreign minister says in UAE

Updated 19 April 2021

Pakistan will talk to India if Kashmir autonomy reverses, foreign minister says in UAE

  • Says Islamabad never evaded talks but India would have to revert disputed Kashmir region’s special autonomy
  • Tells reporters about his three-day visit: “My agenda is UAE-Pakistan and not India-Pakistan”

ISLAMABAD: Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said on Monday Pakistan had never evaded peace talks and wanted to live in peace with all its neighbors, including India, but New Delhi would have to reverse an August 5, 2019 move to strip the disputed Kashmir region of its special autonomy.
Kashmir has been divided but claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan since almost immediately after the two countries’ creation in 1947. They have fought three wars against each other, two directly dealing with the disputed region.
India in 2019 stripped Kashmir of its semi-autonomy and took direct control over it, sparking unrest. Pakistan has since maintained it is open to talks if New Delhi reverses the August 2019 decision.
The FM’s remarks, reported by Pakistani media, came as he spoke at a news conference in the United Arab Emirates where Qureshi is on three-day official visit.
“Both India and Pakistan will have to think about their bilateral ties,” the foreign minister said. “Pakistan is ready to talk with India if it takes back its steps of August 5. Pakistan cannot ignore the Kashmir issue.”
Qureshi added that Pakistan desired peace in the region because peace would create more economic opportunities.
On Sunday Qureshi ruled out any ‘secret meetings’ between Pakistan and India during his UAE visit.
The announcement that Qureshi’s Indian counterpart S. Jaishankar would also be in the UAE at the same time as the Pakistani foreign minister triggered speculation about a possible meeting. Both leaders’ arrival in the UAE comes just days after the Emirati envoy to Washington confirmed the Gulf state had been mediating between the nuclear-armed rivals to help them reach a “healthy and functional” relationship. 
“There have been a number of speculations about secret meetings between me and the external affairs minister of India, S. Jaishankar but neither was our meeting planned and nor are we meeting,” Qureshi told reporters.
“I am here for a bilateral visit and not an India-specific agenda. My agenda is UAE-Pakistan and not India-Pakistan.”
“I don’t think a meeting is set out with the Indian foreign minister,” Qureshi added.

Hospitals filling up, oxygen supplies ‘under stress’ as coronavirus third wave sweeps Pakistan

Updated 19 April 2021

Hospitals filling up, oxygen supplies ‘under stress’ as coronavirus third wave sweeps Pakistan

  • Over 4,500 patients are now in critical care, 30% higher than June last year
  • Planning minister says citizens making a “huge mistake” by not following coronavirus health guidelines

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s planning minister Asad Umar, who also heads a federal body overseeing the country’s pandemic response, said Pakistani hospitals were filing up fast as coronavirus cases rose and oxygen supplies were “under stress.”
Pakistan on Monday recorded 5,152 new infections and 73 coronavirus-related deaths, government data showed, as a third wave of the coronavirus sweeps the country. The South Asian nation of 220 million has recorded 761,437 infections and 16,316 deaths since the beginning of the outbreak in February last year.
According to official data, 4,515 coronavirus patients are currently in critical condition.
“Hospital fill up continuing to grow. Critical care patients now above 4500, which is 30% higher than peak in June last year. Oxygen supply capacity in the country is now under stress,” Umar said on Twitter, adding that compliance of coronavirus standard operating procedures (SOPs) remained low. “We are making a huge mistake by not following sops.”

On Sunday, Hong Kong announced it would suspend flights from India, Pakistan and the Philippines from April 20 for two weeks after the N501Y mutant COVID-19 strain was detected in the Asian financial hub for the first time. The three countries would be classified as “extremely high risk” after there had been multiple imported cases carrying the strain into Hong Kong in the past 14 days, the government said.
The British government has also banned international arrivals from Pakistan amid concerns over new virus variants.

Pakistan condoles with Egypt after deadly train crash 

Updated 19 April 2021

Pakistan condoles with Egypt after deadly train crash 

  • Eleven people died and 98 were injured after four carriages of the train derailed in a province north of Cairo 
  • Sunday’s incident follows three weeks after two passenger trains collided in the Sohag province 

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan on Monday extended its condolences to Egypt, a day after 11 people were killed and 98 injured in a train accident in the Qalioubia province, 40km north of the capital, Cairo.
“We convey our deepest sympathies on the tragic train accident in Egypt,” Pakistan’s foreign ministry said in a Tweet on Monday.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the government, the brotherly people of Egypt and the families of those who have lost their lives. We wish quick recovery to the injured,” it added.

The accident took place after four carriages of the train, which was heading from Cairo to the Nile Delta city of Mansoura, derailed in Toukh on Sunday. 
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has ordered the military’s engineering authority to investigate the crash, with the driver and rail officials detained for questioning.
Sunday’s incident follows three weeks after two passenger trains collided in the Sohag province of the country, killing at least 18 people and injuring 200, including children.
Pakistan enjoys cordial ties with Egypt, with both countries working toward strengthening their relationship in recent months.
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi held talks with President El-Sisi during a two-day visit to Egypt in February this year, where he acknowledged that Egypt was an “important member” of the Muslim world, before describing it as the “gateway to Africa.”

Hong Kong bans flights from India, Pakistan, Philippines for 2 weeks

Updated 19 April 2021

Hong Kong bans flights from India, Pakistan, Philippines for 2 weeks

  • Three countries classified as "extremely high risk" after multiple imported cases of coronavirus into Hong Kong
  • Hong Kong has recorded over 11,600 cases in total and 209 deaths

HONG KONG: Hong Kong will suspend flights from India, Pakistan and the Philippines from April 20 for two weeks after the N501Y mutant COVID-19 strain was detected in the Asian financial hub for the first time, authorities said in a statement late on Sunday.
The three countries would be classified as “extremely high risk” after there had been multiple imported cases carrying the strain into Hong Kong in the past 14 days, the government said.
The city reported 30 new coronavirus cases on Sunday, 29 of which were imported, marking the highest daily toll since March 15. Hong Kong has recorded over 11,600 cases in total and 209 deaths.
Hong Kong authorities have been urging residents to get vaccinated for coronavirus with only around 9% of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million residents vaccinated so far.
The government last week widened the city’s vaccine scheme to include those aged between 16 to 29 years old for the first time, as they aim to boost lacklustre demand for inoculations among residents.
Airlines impacted by Hong Kong’s ban on travelers from India, Pakistan and the Philippines include carriers such as Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong Airlines, Vistara and Cebu Pacific. 

Pakistan to hold third round of talks with banned Tehreek-e-Labbaik party tonight

Updated 15 min 13 sec ago

Pakistan to hold third round of talks with banned Tehreek-e-Labbaik party tonight

  • TLP team allowed to meet arrested leader today after 11 policemen being held hostage released
  • PM says “great misfortune” political and religious parties “use Islam wrongly ... doing damage to their own country”

KARACHI/ISLAMABAD: Federal Minister for Religious Affairs Pir Noorul Haq Qadri said on Monday the government would hold a third round of negotiations with a banned religious political party, the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, (TLP) tonight to end week-long protests being held across Pakistan by the group's followers.

Rioting by the rightwing group has rocked the country since last Monday when TLP chief Saad Rizvi was arrested in Lahore for threatening the government with rallies if it did not expel the French envoy to Islamabad over cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) published in France last year. 

The protests have paralyzed major cities and highways, leading to the deaths of six policemen, according to the government, with thousands of TLP workers under arrest, police say. On Sunday, TLP also took a number of police officers and paramilitary troops hostage, releasing 11 policemen in the early hours of Monday after a first round of negotiations with the government. The TLP says dozens of its supporters have also been killed but hospital and government officials have not verified this information.

The riots have also prompted the French embassy last week to recommend all its nationals temporarily leave the country.

“We believe in negotiations and it’s our policy,” Qadri said in a policy statement in the National Assembly. “We held negotiations [with the protesters] yesterday, in the morning and the third session will be held tonight after the Tarawih prayer.”

The minister assured parliament the deadlock with protesters would be resolved through negotiations as per the aspirations of the nation. 

“No political, democratic and elected government can afford such things and whatever happened in the past few days is regrettable to everyone,” he said. 

Meanwhile, a nine-member TLP delegation will meet the party’s chief Rizvi in jail today, Monday, a spokesperson for the group said. 

“A nine member delegation of the religious scholars will go to Kot lakhpat jail to meet the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan chief Saad Hussain Rizvi,” TLP spokesperson Pir Ejaz Ashrafi, told Arab News.  

TLP chief Rizvi has called on the government to honor what he said was a commitment it made in February to his party to expel the French envoy before April 20 over the publication in France of depictions of the Prophet (pbuh). 

The government of Prime Minister Imran Khan says it had only committed to debating the matter in Parliament. 

In a veiled reference to TLP on Monday, Khan said: “ln our country, it is a great misfortune that many times our political parties and religious parties use Islam wrongly and use it such that they do damage to their own country.” 

Addressing the groundbreaking ceremony for the Margalla Highway in Islamabad, the PM said hurting people, properties and infrastructure would only hurt our own people and “will not have any impact on them [blasphemers].” 

He said he had launched a global campaign against Islamophobia and blasphemy, and would continue the effort: “At some point, people in the West will fear before insulting the honor of our Prophet (pbuh).” 

On Sunday evening, Information Minister Fawad Hussain Chaudhry had said the government was forced to launch an army operation against protesters after they kidnapped law enforcement officials.

“The government believes in negotiations but can’t be blackmailed,” he said. “The operation was started after police and Rangers personnel were kidnapped ... [Prime Minister] Imran Khan has the strongest affection with the Prophet (PBUH) and he has talked about this at every forum.” 

Earlier on Sunday, a police spokesman, Arif Rana, said the operation against the TLP had been halted as the attackers were armed with petrol bombs and a tanker with 50,000 liters of petrol. 

By Sunday evening, he said the situation was “at a standstill” with protesters sitting on roadsides with sticks and petrol bombs in their hands and law enforcement personnel standing guard. 

Last week, the interior ministry said it was moving to have the TLP party banned for attacking law enforcement forces and disrupting public life during its protests. The interior ministry’s decision has been approved by the federal cabinet but needs to be ratified by the Supreme Court for the party to be officially dissolved. 

In October 2020, protests broke out in several Muslim countries over France’s response to a deadly attack on a teacher who showed cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad to his pupils during a civics lesson. 

During similar protests in Pakistan, the government negotiated with the TLP and met a number of its demands, including that it would debate expelling the French ambassador in parliament. 

A deadline to make that parliamentary move expires on April 20. 

Rizvi became the leader of the Tehreek-e-Labiak Pakistan party in November after the sudden death of his father, Khadim Hussein Rizvi. 

Rizvi’s party wants the government to boycott French products and expel the French ambassador under an agreement signed by the government with Rizvi’s party in February. 

Tehreek-e-Labiak and other religious parties denounced French President Emmanuel Macron since October last year, saying he tried to defend caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as freedom of expression. Macron’s comments came after a young Muslim beheaded a French school teacher who had shown caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in class. 

The images had been republished by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo to mark the opening of the trial over the deadly 2015 attack against the publication for the original caricatures. That enraged many Muslims in Pakistan and elsewhere who believe those depictions are blasphemous. 

Rizvi’s party gained prominence in Pakistan’s 2018 federal elections, campaigning to defend the country’s blasphemy law, which calls for the death penalty for anyone who insults Islam. It also has a history of staging protests and sit-ins to pressure the government to accept its demands. 

In November 2017, Rizvi’s followers staged a 21-day protest and sit-in after a reference to the sanctity of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was removed from the text of a government form.