Prime Minister of Pakistan Shehbaz Sharif said: It is not about my privacy, rather it is about the prime minister of Pakistan. Image Credit: AP

Islamabad: Pakistan’s prime minister has ordered the formation of a high-level committee to investigate the issue of audio leaks, which he termed a “very serious lapse”.

“Audio leaks is an important issue and it is a very serious lapse,” Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said during a news conference in Islamabad following his return from the United States.

“It is not about my privacy, rather it is about the prime minister of Pakistan,” he said. Commenting on a recent leak of audio conversations, Sharif said: “Who will come to meet the prime minister at the PM House now? They will think 100 times before communicating [at the PM Office]. This is about the respect of 220 million people of the country.”

What do the audio leaks contain?

The leaks, which surfaced last weekend, involve discussions between Sharif and members of his cabinet about various national, business, and party issues. One of the leaked audio that went viral on social media allegedly features a conversation between Sharif and an unidentified official, reportedly his principal secretary Tauqeer Shah, discussing the possibility of facilitating the import of power project machinery from India at the request of Maryam Nawaz Sharif for her son-in-law Raheel.

One audio clip also includes Sharif’s conversation with his niece and Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) Vice President Maryam Nawaz about the performance of outgoing finance minister Miftah Ismail.

The leaks have led the Sharif family into an embarrassing situation and stirred public debate on the misplaced priorities of the PML-N government.

Pakistan PM Office has not denied the content of the recordings. Responding to the allegations, PM Sharif said that there was nothing wrong in the leaked conversation as neither any favour was sought nor given. The government has played down the controversial leaks saying that the audio leaks were “proof that nothing illegal happened” and neither was any unfair advantage provided to anyone.

New audio clip about Imran Khan

On Wednesday, another audio leak emerged featuring an alleged conversation between former premier Imran Khan and his former principal secretary Azam Khan about a cipher (encoded diplomatic cable) that the PTI chief cited as evidence of a ‘foreign conspiracy’ to oust him from the top office. Responding to the development, Imran Khan said that “it’s a good thing that they have leaked it” and that “The [US] cipher should leak so that it is made public.” Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) earlier demanded a “thorough investigation” into the audio leaks and said they would take up the issue in Supreme Court.

Reports suggest that nearly 100 hours of allegedly recorded conversations in the PM Office have been leaked on an international hacker website after a user called “indishell” claimed to have access to the leaked data. The user had asked for a minimum 180 bitcoins ($3404000) to get access to the leaks.

The audio leaks have also raised concerns over the possible ‘bugging’ of the PM Office as well as a cyberattack. Experts have raised concerns saying that government organisations are unprepared to cope with cyberattacks. Cybersecurity experts say that it is too early to say if the security breach was an inside job or an outside cyberattack.

“The audio leaks of private conversations that happened in Pakistan PM office may or may not involve a cyber attack element but it shows that threat actors continue to exploit vulnerabilities in both physical and digital security space,” cyber security expert Haroon Ali, told Gulf News. “PM office is a critical state asset, as important as military strategic assets, and when compromised it threatens the sovereignty of the state,” he said, suggesting that the Pakistan government “must work with security professionals” to boost cyber defence. Haroon advised the government against paying any amount to the suspected hacker because it sets a dangerous precedent.