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.

Alice Wells discusses Afghan peace process with Islamabad

Updated 21 January 2020

Alice Wells discusses Afghan peace process with Islamabad

  • Islamabad reaffirms commitment to the Afghan peace process, says FO
  • Wells is in Islamabad since Sunday on a four-day visit

ISLAMABAD: The chief US diplomat for South Asian affairs, Alice G. Wells, on Tuesday discussed the ongoing Afghan reconciliation process with Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Sohail Mahmood in Islamabad, ahead of an expected US-Taliban peace agreement.

The principal deputy assistant secretary for South and Central Asian affairs at the US State Department has been in Pakistan since Sunday on a four-day visit to discuss a host of issues of bilateral interest, including the Afghan peace process.

US-Taliban talks have been ongoing in the Qatari capital, Doha, where they are moving toward a peace deal. 

Pakistan has been involved in bringing the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table with the US to restore peace in the region.

“The two sides (Pakistan and the US) ... discussed recent developments regarding the Afghan peace and reconciliation process,” Pakistan’s Foreign Office said in a statement after the hours-long meeting between Wells and Mahmood.

During the meeting, the statement said Pakistan, has “reaffirmed its resolve to continue to support the peace process and pursue positive development of Pakistan-Afghanistan relations.”

This is the second time in recent months the US and Taliban have appeared close to announcing a peace deal. 

In September, President Donald Trump abruptly called off the talks in response to a suicide bombing in Kabul that killed an American soldier.

Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said on Monday in a Twitter post that a three-member team representing the Taliban – Mullah Baradar Akhund, Sher Muhammad Abbas Stanekzai and Amir Khan Muttaqqi – met with US special envoy for Afghan reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. Scott Miller, the US and NATO commander in Afghanistan.

Experts have termed the recent negotiations between the US and Taliban decisive and are expecting them to reach an agreement by the end of this month.

“Taliban have already agreed on a violence reduction in Afghanistan that was one of the key demands of the US. So, it means both sides are close to a significant peace pact,” Rahimullah Yousafzai, an expert on Afghanistan and Taliban affairs, told Arab News.

He said that Pakistan has played a crucial role in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table by using its influence over the militants. “Alice Wells may discuss the pros and cons of the proposed peace agreement with Pakistan’s top civilian and military leadership during her meetings,” he said.