An article in the Guardian yesterday reported that the Pakistani intelligence agency ISI is using sophisticated technology from the U.S. as part of a campaign of kidnapping, torture, and even murder. At first, the target appeared to be radical Islamic groups (which is ironic, because the ISI was a key player in the ascendency of the Taliban in the first place), but soon enough the victims included people who were completely innocent, or guilty only of political opposition to the Pakistani regime. In the middle of this report is a description of how these agencies are using a lot of surveillance technologies that were given to them by the United States, in aid of this campaign:
[I]n late 2001, as al-Qaida fugitives fled from Afghanistan into Pakistan, Musharraf ordered that the agencies show full cooperation to the FBI, CIA and other US security agencies. In return, the Americans would give them equipment, expertise and money.
Suddenly, Pakistan's agencies had sophisticated devices to trace mobile phones, bug houses and telephone calls, and monitor large volumes of email traffic. "Whatever it took to improve the Pakistanis' technical ability to find al-Qaida fighters, we were there to help them," says Michael Scheuer, a former head of the CIA's Osama bin Laden unit. An official with an American organisation says he once received a startling demonstration of the ISI's new capabilities. Driving down a street inside a van with ISI operatives, he could monitor phone conversations taking place in every house they passed. "It was very impressive, and really quite spooky," he says.
The use of U.S. spy technology to help facilitate human rights abuses abroad probably shouldn't come as a surprise. The dangerous "mission creep" of surveillance technologies from anti-terrorist uses to uses against political opponents and ordinary people within the U.S. is well documented, and now it seems we are spreading this problem internationally. It's a good reminder, though, to people who build these tools, or inherently insecure telecommunications systems that make surveillance easy. As Bruce Schneier has said: "it is poor civic hygiene to install technologies that could someday facilitate a police state." And that's true wherever the technology is being deployed.