Pakistan mulls WhatsApp alternative to thwart data breach

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In this file photo, Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan chairs meeting of the Federal Cabinet at Islamabad on Nov. 5, 2019. (PID)
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Pakistan is planning to introduce intranet in government offices and develop a local alternative to WhatsApp to protect the official data from being hacked. (Shutterstock)
Updated 22 November 2019

Pakistan mulls WhatsApp alternative to thwart data breach

  • All government functionaries, including president and prime minister, will use a local app from next June
  • Government in the process of banning senior government, military officials from using WhatsApp to share any classified information

ISLAMABAD/LAHORE: Pakistan is trying to develop a local instant messaging application to protect official data and sensitive information from hackers and hostile intelligence agencies, senior government officials said on Thursday, as the government of the South Asian nation considers banning senior government and military officials from using WhatsApp at official premises.
Last month, officials at Whatsapp told media senior government officials in multiple US-allied countries were targeted earlier this year with hacking software that used Facebook Inc’s WhatsApp to take over users’ phones. Victims belonged to the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Mexico, Pakistan, India and other nations.
“We have been working to improve our cyber security and develop a messaging application like WhatsApp for government officials,” Dr. Arslan Khalid, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s focal person on digital media, told Arab News. “This local application will help us protect sensitive government data and other classified information from hostile spying agencies and hackers.”
Pakistan is ranked among the top seven countries for inadequate cyber security, with 25 percent of its mobile phones and 14.8 percent of computers infected with malware, according to a study conducted by technology site Comparitech.
Authorities have proposed introducing intranet in government offices and developing a local alternative to WhatsApp after NSO – an Israeli spyware firm – was sued by WhatsApp/Facebook on October 29 for “violating both the US and California laws as well as the WhatsApp terms of service.”
A special type of malware named “Pegasus” was employed, reportedly between 28 April and 10 May 2019, which affected approximately 1400 senior government and military officials in twenty countries including Pakistan.
“The malware is capable of infecting any mobile phone [iOS and Android] only by generating a missed call on the targeted WhatsApp number,” a special advisory issued by the Ministry of Information Technology earlier this month said.
The advisory, a copy of which is available with Arab News, directed senior government officials holding “sensitive portfolios and dealing with national security matters” to consider that “no official/classified information be shared on WhatsApp or similar applications” for security reasons.

In order to minimize the possibility of any infections by Pegasus malware, the ministry also directed government functionaries to immediately replace all mobile phones purchased prior to 10 May 2019.
Against this backdrop, the government has started developing an intra-communication system, a WhatsApp-like service, to ensure “no data leaves GoP [Government of Pakistan] data centers.”
“It will be an official channel of communication which will provide an interlink to all federal ministries to share official documents,” Ali Khan Jadoon, a ruling party lawmaker and chairman of the National Assembly Standing Committee on Information Technology, told Arab News.
Under the new system, any government official using the local area network would not be able to use WhatsApp, Facebook messenger and other social media platforms.
“This network will have the ministry of defense, interior and others on it since we don’t want any sensitive information to be leaked,” Jadoon added, saying each government official would have a unique ID to use the system and anyone trying to leak information would be identifiable with their ID.
He said the application, which costs round Rs1.3 billion ($8.37 million), would be launched by June 2020: “Everyone will be on this [application] including the president and the prime minister.”
The National Information Technology Board (NITB) is also implementing an e-government program in all federal ministries to protect official data and sensitive information from leaking to hackers or hostile intelligence agencies.
“We have so far completed our work in 28 ministries out of 42, and the remaining will also be converted to an e-government program by June next year,” Faisal Iqbal, director-general NITB, told Arab News.
Asked about rumors that the government may curb freedom of speech and freedom of expression by expanding the local instant messaging app to the public, just as it happened in China, Dr. Arslan Khalid said the government wanted to protect official data only.
“We are not planning to restrict the public use of social media or curtail freedom of expression. All these rumors are baseless,” he said. “Even government employees can use WhatsApp and any other social media platforms for personal interaction once they are outside of their public offices.”

UAE-based Carrefour partners with Pakistani NGO to help the needy in Ramadan

Updated 22 March 2023

UAE-based Carrefour partners with Pakistani NGO to help the needy in Ramadan

  • Carrefour, Pakistan’s Alkhidmat Foundation to provide meals to less privileged Pakistanis in Ramadan
  • The two will also provide humanitarian aid to people affected by the devastating quake in Türkiye, Syria

ISLAMABAD: Retail company Carrefour Pakistan, owned and operated by UAE-based holding firm Majid Al Futtaim, announced on Wednesday its decision to join hands with Pakistani non-profit organization (NGO) Alkhidmat Foundation to provide relief to earthquake victims in Syria and Turkiye, and provide free meals to the less privileged in Pakistan during Ramadan. 

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, observed by Muslims worldwide as a month of fasting, prayer, reflection, and charity. The first fast in Pakistan is likely to be observed on Thursday, March 23.

Through the collaboration, Carrefour said the two would provide meals to the less privileged Pakistanis in Ramadan and also send relief items to victims of the recent devastating earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria.

“We believe in the power of collective action and community support. We are greatly pleased to join hands with Alkhidmat Foundation to play our part in eliminating food hunger in the country, whilst providing relief to those affected by the earthquakes in Turkiye and Syria,” Umer Lodhi, Carrefour Pakistan’s country manager, said.

“We hope our combined efforts will make a positive impact on those who need it the most.”

The statement added that customers would also have the opportunity to give back to the community this Ramadan by purchasing special, pre-packed boxes filled with essential food items such as rice, flour, oil, dates & pulses.

The pre-packed boxes, it said, will then be distributed among needy families to help provide them some relief during Ramadan as the South Asian country grapples with decades-high inflation.

“Earthquake relief boxes comprising shelter supplies, clothing, and non-perishable food items are available for customers to buy and donate at all Carrefour stores,” the statement said.

In rare case for Pakistan, Muslim charged with blasphemy for offending minority Hindus

Updated 22 March 2023

In rare case for Pakistan, Muslim charged with blasphemy for offending minority Hindus

  • Aslam Baloch, a local journalist from Sindh, had uploaded a morphed image of a Hindu deity on social media
  • Most blasphemy cases in Pakistan are filed against people for defiling the Quran, insulting Prophet Muhammad

KARACHI: In a rare case in Muslim-majority Pakistan, a journalist in the southern Sindh province has been arrested under the country’s blasphemy law for offending Hindus by uploading a doctored image of a deity on social media, a senior officer said on Wednesday.

Pakistan's blasphemy laws make it a crime to insult any religion and most blasphemy cases in the country are filed against people for defiling the holy Quran or insulting the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), offences that carry a life sentence and mandatory death sentence, respectively.

In a rare case, however, local journalist Aslam Baloch, a Muslim, was arrested on Tuesday after Hindu community members complained that he had disrespected their religion by editing a photo of the Hindu deity Hanuman and replacing its face with that of former prime minister Imran Khan.

“Aslam Baloch had shared an edited photo of the Hindu god Hanuman with a very objectionable caption,” senior superintendent of police in Mirpur Khas, Captain (retired) Asad Ali Chaudhry, told Arab News.

“We took legal action upon a complaint and arrested the journalist.”

The complaint was filed by Ramesh Kumar, the head of a local Hindu council, after which Baloch was booked under two sections of the Pakistan Penal Code, section 153-A, for promoting enmity between different groups, and section 295-A, which is related to the blasphemy law and applies to anyone accused of having deliberate and malicious intention of outraging religious feeling through written or spoken words, or visual representations.

In his complaint, Kumar said he was sitting with friends at a doctor’s clinic in Mirpur Khas and scrolling through his social media timelines when he came across Baloch’s post.

“The morphed photo was shared with a highly objectionable caption, which was a clear attempt to hurt the sentiment of the followers of the Hindu faith,” Kumar told Arab News. “The post also intended to damage religious harmony, create religious hatred, and incite violence.”

If found guilty, Baloch can be punished with ten years imprisonment, a fine, or both.

Following Baloch’s arrest, Kumar said that he was “satisfied" with the police action.

“They heard us, registered our complaint, and arrested the culprit. It has given us a sense of security and made us feel that we are equal citizens of Pakistan,” Kumar added.

Baloch, who is in police custody, could not be reached for a comment.

In other rare cases in Pakistan where action was taken against Muslims for offending the religious sentiments of minorities, in April 2021, police filed a case under 295-A against three unknown persons for disrespecting a Priest-King replica at the Mohenjo-Daro ancient site in Sindh. The Priest-King is a small male figure sculpted in steatite found during the excavation of the ruined Bronze Age city of Mohenjo-Daro in Sindh, Pakistan.

In September 2019, Muslims were booked for attacking and damaging a Hindu temple in the Ghotki area of Sindh. Another case was registered under the blasphemy laws against Muslim suspects for vandalizing a Hindu temple in Karachi on September 21, 2012.

Around four million Hindus live in Pakistan, or about 1.9% of the country’s population, out of which 1.4 million reside in Sindh.

Pakistani tribesmen announce mourning in native town of army brigadier killed in militant ambush

Updated 22 March 2023

Pakistani tribesmen announce mourning in native town of army brigadier killed in militant ambush

  • Brig. Mustafa Kamal Barki lost his life in a shootout with militants near the frontier region of Angoor Adda on Tuesday
  • His tribal community describes his killing as an ‘irreparable’ loss amid rising number of militant attacks in recent months

PESHAWAR: Local tribesmen in the native town of a senior Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency official announced three days of mourning on Wednesday after a group of militants killed him in an attack near the country’s border with Afghanistan the day before.

According to a statement issued by the army, Brig. Mustafa Kamal Barki was driving to Wana, the headquarters of South Waziristan tribal district, when his caravan came under attack near the frontier region of Angoor Adda. The ensuing shootout killed Barki and left seven troops injured.

So far, no group has claimed responsibility for the attack, which was described by his community members as a major loss.

“I really don’t have words to express how big a loss this is for the nation,” Malik Irfan Barki, a tribal elder and the slain official’s close neighbor, told Arab News. “What we have suffered as his community members is simply irreparable.”

“The demise of Mustafa Barki has shattered us and sent shockwaves through the Kaniguram valley,” he continued. “I called a grand jirga [tribal gathering] of Barki elders which announced three-day mourning over his tragic demise.”

Kaniguram, a picturesque town at the heart of South Waziristan district, is home to a small community of about 14,000 people.

The attack on Barki was launched amid a surge in militant violence in Pakistan since a proscribed militant faction, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), called off a fragile cease-fire with the government in November.

TTP militants have since targeted police and security forces in the country’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces located next to Afghanistan.

Nisar Barki, a cousin of the slain official, described his relative as a “caring person.”

He said Barki received his early education from a local school in his hometown before getting admission to an education institute in Tank.

“We studied together until the 12th grade and were even together at Cadet College Razmak in North Waziristan,” he added. “After completing his education there, Mustafa was selected by a medical college and Pakistan’s military academy, but he preferred to join the army.”

“He was a bold, courageous, and very caring person as a relative,” he continued.

He also said that his cousin joined the Frontier Force Regiment in 1995 and served in various capacities. He was also posted abroad to work with different Pakistani diplomatic missions.

The slain official was a graduate of the National Defense University and Command and Staff College Quetta. Apart from that, he also participated in the Kargil war and suffered injuries.

“My late cousin used to tell me to forgive and forget,” Barki said. “He was a genius and a deep-thinking man.”


Ex-PM accuses Punjab, Islamabad police chiefs of plotting to kill him in upcoming 'operation'

Updated 22 March 2023

Ex-PM accuses Punjab, Islamabad police chiefs of plotting to kill him in upcoming 'operation'

  • Ex-PM Khan alleges "operation" outside his Lahore residence would take place "either today or tomorrow"
  • This time if they try to provoke you, do not give them any sort of reaction, Khan tells party supporters

ISLAMABAD: Former prime minister Imran Khan on Wednesday accused the heads of the Islamabad and Punjab police forces of plotting to kill him in a security operation he alleged would take place "either today or tomorrow."

Khan, who sustained gunshot wounds during an anti-government rally in November last year, has accused the government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and the caretaker government in Pakistan's most populous Punjab province of plotting to murder him. Both have strongly rejected Khan's claims. 

Clashes broke out between Khan supporters and Islamabad police on Saturday after the former premier showed up at the capital's judicial complex. Khan had arrived to attend the hearing of a case relating to the sale of state gifts during his stint as prime minister. The episode followed violent clashes between Khan supporters and Punjab police last Tuesday in Lahore, when police arrived to arrest him on court orders at his Zaman Park residence. 

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party leader has accused the federal government of playing a "trap" to have him killed during his appearance at the judicial complex on Saturday. The government has rejected his allegations and vowed stern action against those involved in attacking police. 

In his latest video message, Khan said the Islamabad police chief and Punjab police chief, and their "handlers"--a term he uses frequently for Pakistan's powerful military establishment—had come up with a plan to hold a police operation outside his Zaman Park residence "either today or tomorrow" to assassinate him. 

"They have made two squads, one has been chosen by the Islamabad IG and the other by the Punjab IG. They will infiltrate our people here [at the Zaman Park residence] and from here, shoot dead four to five policemen," Khan said. 

"After that, an attack will take place from the other side, they [Punjab Police] will respond with gunfire and kill our people, carry out Model Town-style murders and then they will arrive at my house and kill me like Murtaza Bhutto was killed," he added. 

Khan urged his party supporters to remain calm in the face of police aggression, telling them not to be provoked into violence. 

"This time if they try to provoke you, do not give them any sort of reaction," Khan said. 

On Tuesday, caretaker Punjab Chief Minister Mohsin Raza Naqvi said he had ordered police to do "whatever it takes" to uphold the writ of the government in the province. 

He announced a joint investigation team had been set up to probe the attacks on police by PTI supporters, vowing to take stern action against them. Naqvi and the Punjab police chief have earlier accused Khan of using militants from Pakistan's northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province to repel police forces at his Lahore residence. 

Earthquake kills 10 in Pakistan, at least four in Afghanistan

Updated 22 March 2023

Earthquake kills 10 in Pakistan, at least four in Afghanistan

  • Epicenter of quake was 40 kilometers south-southeast of district of Jurm in Afghanistan
  • In 2005, at least 73,000 people were killed by 7.6 magnitude quake in northern Pakistan

PESHAWAR: At least 10 people were killed in Pakistan and four in Afghanistan as a magnitude 6.5 earthquake struck large swathes of the two neighbouring countries on Tuesday evening, officials said on Wednesday.

The Provincial Disaster Management Authority for Pakistan's northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province said 10 people had been killed in the province and 62 were injured. At least 55 houses had been partially destroyed and 10 had been fully destroyed, while rescue officials had taken injured people to hospitals.

“The provincial Emergency Center at PDMA, Rescue 1122 and district administrations are on high alert in case of aftershocks,” PDMA spokesperson Taimur Ali told Arab News.

Bilal Faizi, a spokesperson for Rescue 1122 said: “The emergency phase was completed earlier tonight and soon the phase of relief and then rehabilitation will be initiated.”

He added that over a 100 people who fell unconscious “out of shock and fear” during the tremors were also taken to nearby hospitals.  

People gather outside a mall following an earthquake in Islamabad, Pakistan, on March 21, 2023. (AFP)

The US Geological Survey said the epicenter of the magnitude 6.5 quake was 40 kilometers (25 miles) south-southeast of the district of Jurm in Afghanistan’s mountainous Hindukush region, bordering Pakistan and Tajikistan. The quake struck 188 kilometers (116 miles) deep below the Earth’s surface, causing it to be felt over a wide area.

In neighbouring Afghanistan, Sharafat Zaman Amar, a Taliban-appointed spokesman for the public health ministry, said the earthquake killed four people and injured 70. He said casualties and damages were reported from different provinces, Two people died in the northern Takhar province and one child died in the eastern Laghman province.

A 6.1 magnitude earthquake in eastern Afghanistan killed more than 1,000 people last year.

In 2005, at least 73,000 people were killed by a 7.6 magnitude quake that struck northern Pakistan.