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.


Road to ruin: Double tax and bandits on the Pakistan-Afghan trade route 

Updated 29 July 2021

Road to ruin: Double tax and bandits on the Pakistan-Afghan trade route 

  • The Taliban’s capture of a key Afghan-Pakistan border post has sent trucking costs soaring
  • Taliban are charging drivers about $1,000 as duty in Spin Boldak with Kandahar officials demanding more 

Chaman, Pakistan: The Taliban’s capture of a key Afghan-Pakistan border post has sent trucking costs soaring, with insurgents and government officials separately taxing traders, and bandits demanding bribes to allow safe passage of goods.
Thousands of vehicles cross daily from Chaman in southwestern Pakistan to Spin Boldak on the other side, carrying goods destined for Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-biggest city.
On the way back they usually ferry agricultural produce bound for Pakistan’s markets or ports.
The bilateral trade — worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year if not more — ground to a halt earlier this month after the Taliban seized the dusty border town, but resumed this week with the insurgents seemingly firmly in charge.
They have captured a vast swath of the country since early May after launching a series of offensives to capitalize on the final stages of the withdrawal of foreign troops.
While they have not yet taken any provincial capitals, they have captured a string of key border posts — with Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Pakistan — which provide vital revenue from customs duties on goods arriving in the landlocked country.
“We loaded grapes in Kandahar and on the way we have been extorted at least three times,” trucker Hidayatullah Khan told AFP at Chaman.
“Sometimes they charge 3,000 rupees ($20), somewhere else 2,000 rupees, and in some other place 1,000 rupees,” he said.
That was on top of the taxes he had to pay Taliban officials in Spin Boldak and Afghan government customs officials who have opened shop in Kandahar.
Truckers interviewed in Chaman this week told of chaos and confusion on the Afghan side of the border.
Imran Kakar, vice president of the Pak-Afghan Joint Chamber of Commerce, gave one example of a truck carrying fabric from Karachi destined for Kandahar.
The Taliban charged the driver 150,000 rupees (about $1,000) as duty in Spin Boldak, but when the vehicle reached Kandahar government officials were also waiting.
“We had to pay even higher customs duties as they don’t acknowledge the payments made to Taliban,” said Kakar.
The scenes were reminiscent of Afghanistan during its brutal civil war in the 1990s, when a patchwork of militias held stretches of key trade routes and extorted truckers and residents using the roads at will.
Hundreds of trucks were lined up Wednesday on the Pakistan side of the border, waiting for permission to cross.
On a dusty plain this week, with rugged hillocks as a backdrop, drivers and “spanner boy” apprentices tinkered with their vehicles ahead of the journey.
While the distance is just 100 kilometers (60 miles), the journey is fraught with danger.
Vehicles and roads are poorly maintained in Afghanistan, police and army checkpoints routinely demand “tea money” or more from every driver, and bandits also lie in wait — either to steal goods or demand further payment for safe passage.
There is also the risk they could be caught in crossfire during fighting between the Taliban and government forces.
Still, traders and drivers say they have little option but to keep on trucking.
“War has been going on, we know that, but we don’t have any other choice,” said Abdul Razzaq, a driver carrying hatchling chicks to Kandahar.
“Transportation of goods is the only means for us to feed our families,” he told AFP.


UAE suspends flights from Pakistan, India until August 7

Updated 29 July 2021

UAE suspends flights from Pakistan, India until August 7

  • Flights to Pakistan from the UAE have been suspended for months now due to the coronavirus pandemic 
  • UAE is home to 1.5 million Pakistanis and ranked one of Pakistan’s top contributors of foreign remittances

ISLAMABAD: Emirates, the largest airline and the flag carrier of the United Arab Emirates, said on Wednesday flights from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka had been suspended until August 7 in line with the government’s orders.
The UAE is home to 1.5 million Pakistanis and ranked one of Pakistan’s top contributors, alongside Saudi Arabia, of foreign remittances. Flights to Pakistan from the Emirates have been disrupted for months now due to the coronavirus pandemic. The date for resumption of travel has also been extended several times now.
“In line with UAE government directives, Emirates will be suspending the carriage of passengers from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka to Dubai until 07 August 2021,” the airline said on its website. “Furthermore, passengers who have connected through India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka in the last 14 days will not be accepted to travel from any other point to the UAE.”
UAE Nationals, holders of UAE Golden Visas and members of diplomatic missions who comply with updated COVID‑19 protocols, are exempt and may be accepted for travel, the airline said. 
It advised travelers that if their flight had been canceled or impacted by route suspensions due to COVID‑19 restrictions, “you don’t need to call us immediately for rebooking. You can simply hold on to your Emirates ticket and when flights resume, get in touch with us or your booking office to make new travel plans.”


‘Alarming’ surge: Pakistan reports over 4,000 new COVID-19 infections second day running

Updated 29 July 2021

‘Alarming’ surge: Pakistan reports over 4,000 new COVID-19 infections second day running

  • Thursday was first time since June 9 that Pakistan recorded 76 new deaths due to coronavirus
  • “Alarming and critical” situation in Karachi city as positivity ratio crosses 26 percent

KARACHI: Pakistan reported more than 4,000 new coronavirus cases for the second day running, data from the National Command and Operation Center showed on Thursday, with the national positivity rate shooting past 7.5 percent.
As per the NCOC pandemic response body, 59,707 tests were conducted in the last 24 hours, of which 4,497 returned positive. The new cases take the nationwide tally of COVID-19 cases to 1,020,324, with a current positivity rate of 7.53 percent.


Thursday was also the first time since June 9 that Pakistan recorded 76 new deaths due to the coronavirus, taking the countrywide death toll to 23,209. Around 28 million vaccine jabs have been administered so far in a country of 220 million people.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s southern Sindh province is witnessing an “abnormal” surge in COVID-19 cases and an “alarming and critical” situation as the positivity ratio in the city shot past 26 percent.
Pakistan’s director general health, Dr. Rana Muhammad Safdar, told Arab News the National Command and Operations Center (NCOC), which oversees the country’s pandemic response, was closely working with the Sindh administration to stop the spread of the virus.
“The NCOC is working closely with the Sindh government to support the NPI [non-pharmacological interventions] implementation, vaccination ramp up and upbuilding hospital capacity,” Safdar said.
The infection rate in Karachi has consistently remained high, with 8,513 coronavirus cases recorded during the last week and an average daily positivity rate of 21.73 percent.
Secretary General of the Pakistan Medical Association Dr. Qaiser Sajjad has suggested imposing a 15-day lockdown in the metropolis, saying if untested people were counted, the positivity rate had likely reached 40 percent.


Pakistanis sacrificed animals worth around $2.5 billion on Eid Al-Adha, tanners say 

Updated 29 July 2021

Pakistanis sacrificed animals worth around $2.5 billion on Eid Al-Adha, tanners say 

  • Up to 9 million animals including cows, sheep, goats and camels, were slaughtered this Eid 
  • Number of sacrifices on the rise since last year as people unable to go to Saudi Arabia for Hajj pilgrimage

KARACHI: Pakistanis sacrificed around nine million animals worth $2.5 billion on the Muslim festival of Eid Al-Adha last week, tanners and leather exporters have said, at least a one-billion-dollar increase from last year.
Eid Al-Adha, the second most important festival of Islam, was observed in Pakistan last Wednesday. Muslims traditionally mark the occasion by sacrificing livestock and distributing the meat among friends, family and the poor.
In Pakistan, the number of sacrificial animals has been on the rise since last year as people have been unable to go to Saudi Arabia to perform the Hajj pilgrimage due to coronavirus restrictions and have thus offered the ritual sacrifice in their home country.
Last year, the worth of sacrificial animals was estimated to be $1.5 billion.
“We estimate that around eight million to nine million animals including cows, sheep, goats and camels, were slaughtered on this Eid Al-Adha,” Abdul Salam, senior vice-chairman of the Pakistan Tanners Association (PTA), told Arab News. “Large number of Pakistanis who were unable to go for Hajj have offered the sacrifice rituals here in the country ... Sacrifices are more than our estimate of six million to seven million for this year.”
M. Danish Khan, chairman of the Pakistan Leather Garments Manufacturers and exporters Association (PLGMEA), told Arab News Rs400 billion ($2.5 billion) worth of animals were slaughtered this year. No official data was available.
“This growth is due to the restrictions on travel for Hajj,” Khan said.
Former PTA chairman Ejaz Ahmed Sheikh, who is chairman of leather supplier Bombal Leathers, said while exact figures were as yet unavailable, the overall value of sacrificial animals could be even higher than tanners’ estimates.
“It is estimated that around 3-4 million cows were slaughtered this year,” he told Arab News. “So, keeping average price at Rs 100,000, the overall value goes up to Rs300 billion, while if we add the value of goats, sheep, and camels, the value exceeds Rs400 billion.”
The rate of waste has also been higher this year, with data from the Lahore branch of PTA showing that Rs2 billion worth of hides and skins was wasted. 
PLGME’s chief Khan said material wastage was an annual problem.
“Huge quantities of hides and skins are wasted every year due to lack of proper facilities required to preserve the material,” he said.
Skins and hides from sacrificial animals are usually collected by Islamic seminaries and welfare organizations which sell them to leather exporters and tanners to meet their financial expenditures.
Qazi Sadaruddin, director at the Al-Khidmat Foundation, a non-governmental organization that provides humanitarian services across Pakistan, told Arab News the collection of skins, as well as their rates, had increased this year.
“The rates are comparatively higher this year and the collection of skins and hides has also increased,” he said.
Eid Al-Adha contributes around 20-30 percent of raw material to Pakistan’s leather industry, which PLGME expects will cross the $1 billion mark this year. In the previous fiscal year 2020-21, the leather sector contributed $833 million to Pakistan’s overall exports of $25.3 billion.
“Despite COVID-19, Pakistan’s export sector has performed very well during the last fiscal year,” PLGME’s Khan said. “We hope that this year Pakistan’s leather exports will hit the $1 billion mark”.


Pakistan invites Bahrain to invest in CPEC projects

Updated 29 July 2021

Pakistan invites Bahrain to invest in CPEC projects

  • Pakistani foreign minister co-chairs second session of Pakistan-Bahrain Joint Ministerial Commission
  • Five other Gulf countries have pledged to develop Pakistan’s deep-water Gwadar port under CPEC

ISLAMABAD: Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has invited the leadership of Bahrain to invest in development projects under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), as he started his two-day visit to the Gulf state on Wednesday.
Qureshi arrived in Manama to co-chair the second session of the Pakistan-Bahrain Joint Ministerial Commission (JMC), the inaugural meeting of which was held in Islamabad in February 2017. His visit to Bahrain would, the foreign office said, “add to the current momentum and positive trajectory of brotherly ties between the two countries.”
While addressing the JMC, Qureshi said CPEC offered opportunities in which Pakistan wanted to cooperate with Bahrain and other Gulf countries.
“There are great business and investment opportunities in Pakistan, especially under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor,” the foreign minister was quoted by the Pakistani foreign office as saying. “In this regard, we look forward to working closely with the Kingdom of Bahrain and other GCC countries.”
CPEC has seen Beijing pledge over $60 billion for infrastructure projects in Pakistan, central to China’s wider Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to develop land and sea trade routes in Asia and beyond. The investment plan also aims to link western China to the southern Pakistani port of Gwadar.
Last month, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar were among nations that pledged to support the development of the deep-water seaport.
The foreign office said the JMC meeting would focus on bilateral cooperation in commerce, investment, energy, overseas employment, agriculture, and broadcasting.
Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Bahrain in December 2019 on the invitation of King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa and was decorated with Bahrain’s prestigious King Hamad Order of the Renaissance award.