Cyber security 190108
Photo for illustrative purposes. Image Credit: Pixabay

Islamabad: The Pakistan government has initiated a probe into the alleged audio leaks that appear to be informal conversations held inside the Prime Minister’s Office.

Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah said that Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif had taken notice of alleged audio leaks of the PM House and ordered an investigation which would include all representatives of all key government agencies. He added that it was too early to say that the PM House’s security was being breached until the investigation is completed.

Audio leaks

Reports suggest that nearly 100 hours of allegedly recorded conversations in the PM Office have been leaked to an international hacker website. One of the leaked audio that went viral on social media allegedly features a conversation between Sharif and an unidentified official discussing the possibility of facilitating the import of power project machinery.

A second clip allegedly involves a conversation between the prime minister, Defence Minister Khawaja Asif, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah. Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar, and Ayaz Sadiq about the resignations of PTI lawmakers from the National Assembly. Another purported audio clip involves a conversation between PML-N Vice President Maryam Nawaz and the prime minister about the alleged bad policies of former finance minister Miftah Ismail.

One of the alleged conversations between Maryam and Shehbaz was about Chief Minister Pervaiz Elahi who in a video said that he was deeply hurt by the words used against him by Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leaders.

The content of the recordings has not been denied or disputed by the PM Office. However, Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb played down the issue saying that the audio leaks were “proof that nothing illegal happened” and neither was any unfair advantage provided to anyone.

Imran Khan’s party demands thorough investigation

Former prime minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has demanded a “thorough investigation” into the audio leaks and decided to take up the issue in the Supreme Court. PTI leader Fawad Chaudhry described the audio recordings as a “major security lapse” and demanded a “thorough investigation” and to hold those accountable who are involved. He said the current leaks had caused a “national security crisis” in the country. Another PTI leader Shireen Mazari raised concerns over the possible ‘bugging’ of the PM Office and the possibility that this may be the result of a cyberattack.

Audio leaks raise cybersecurity concerns

Cybersecurity experts have raised concerns saying that government organisations are unprepared to cope with cyberattacks. Information security researcher Rafay Baloch says that he wrote a letter in 2021 to former prime minister Imran Khan to draw attention to the “risks associated with paperless mode of communication such as tablets, smartphones for conducting sensitive meetings such as cabinet meetings.” He adds that the recent audio leaks supported his argument, adding: “The length/duration of alleged audio leaks reveals that the devices remained bugged for an extended period of time.”

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 cyberattack element but it exhibits that threat actors continue to exploit vulnerabilities in both physical and digital security space,” cybersecurity 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” which is why “the Government of Pakistan must work with professionals in the security field who can help integrate cyber resilience at every step of strategic planning by adopting international best practices of national cybersecurity and establishing a national cybersecurity centre.”

Haroon also advised the government against paying any amount to the suspect who claims to have copies of leaked audio because it sets a dangerous precedent. “Paying criminals will encourage future criminals, which is why we are seeing a rise in ransomware attacks and other data breaches” he said. Former information minister Fawad Chaudhry had claimed that the government was holding talks with the hacker to block the release of more recordings.