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The Rogue Networks of Pakistan


Three things have come out in Pakistan since The New York Times reported on the explosive Axact scandal. First, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) has sealed the Karachi and Rawalpindi offices of the software company that had reportedly made millions of dollars by selling fake degrees. Since "crime" has historically and traditionally been viewed as something that involves physically hurting someone, the country's Interior Minister, Nisar Ali Khan, does not feel that urgent to move forward, because, according to him, "this is not a murder case. No one has been killed or hurt." This attitude indicates how nonchalant Pakistan is with regard to cyber crimes. More importantly, this is the right time to raise the question of whether or not the Pakistani government has the expertise or even the will to smoothly investigate such a high-profile scandal in the field of information technology.

Secondly, Axact has begun to bully independent blogs that have shared the links of or commented on the New York Times stories. On May 18, Pak Tea House, an intellectual café in Lahore, received a letter from an Axact lawyer demanding that they "immediately take down the links [to the New York Times stories from its website] within 24 hours and extend an unconditional apology and retraction, for your illegal, defamatory, slanderous and malicious actions."

Since Axact and BOL, an upcoming news channel, are both headed by the same person, the warning of serving legal notices to an independent blog is alarming. How come a company that intends to launch a news channel so blatantly seeks to censor free speech? Only people who are committed to freedom of expression should be allowed to run news organizations, not those who endeavor to muzzle it. Those who try to stifle dissenting voices through threats and intimidation certainly do not contribute to increasing space for more freedom of the press and difference of opinion.

Thirdly, the Axact bosses have finally announced the much-awaited date for the launch of their television channel, BOL, which was previously expected to rock Pakistan's news media landscape because of substantial financial investment and the recruitment of top-class professional journalists. The CEO of BOL says The New York Times' "allegations" have finally "forced" them to come up with an "emergency launching" of their news network. The strategists at BOL are manipulating religion and patriotism as the two essential tiers to popularize their project among the masses. Hence, it is not a coincident that the BOL executives have specifically chosen the first day of Ramadan, the holiest of all months in the Islamic calendar, for the launch of their network.

While the FIA has begun its investigations into the mysterious world of Axact, countries and international organizations committed to fighting cyber crimes and online fraud should be involved in probing this scandal. In the recent years, terrorists and hackers have been using online tools as a great platform to steal sensitive official data, shut down government websites and even recruit fresh jihadists. Given its large size and geostrategic importance, Pakistan cannot cite ignorance as a convincing reason for its repeated failure to detect and dismantle such dangerous networks. The rest of the world pays a heavy price for Pakistan's negligence or incompetence when, for example, Islamabad says it did not know that the world's most wanted terrorist, Osama bin Laden, was hiding in Abbottabad in the backyard of the Pakistan Military Academy, or that a global network of fraudulent degrees such as Axact existed and openly operated from Pakistan.

Countries that do not have stringent laws and regulations become safe heavens for all kinds of criminals and frauds. Pakistan should worry us more because it can become a hub for those who want to become millionaires overnight by selling fake online degrees, engaging in credit card theft and stealing sensitive personal information, as well as for those who want to use the Internet for promoting extremist religious groups and recruiting young boys and girls for groups like the Islamic State and the Taliban.

The Internet is hard to regulate in countries like Pakistan, where most members of the parliament do not even have an email address. A generation gap between the young people who use the Internet as a place for infinite (good or bad) opportunities and the older legislators who do not even know the basics of the rapidly emerging technology is deeply frightening. Learning how the Internet works is no longer a luxury. It is the most fundamental piece of information the legislators should know today if they want to make laws on almost everything from international trade to curbing terrorism and human trafficking. A world in which terrorists and criminals are more tech-savvy than the lawmakers should indeed keep us sleepless.

The Axact episode should alert cyber security analysts as much as the AQ Khan network shocked the nuclear nonproliferation experts or the presence of Bin Laden in Pakistan stunned the security and intelligence gurus. A country that fails to take timely action against networks of rogue scientists, cyber criminals or jihadist terrorists does not make our world a safer place, nor can it avoid international scrutiny and pressure by solely viewing these networks as its domestic matter.

This article originally appeard in Huffington Post

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