Punjab govt proposes data processing, sharing protocols

The influx of digital devices has helped usher in a new era of technological ease. But few realize the actual cost that technology demands of us: unrestricted and unfettered access to us – or our precious data.

But light could be around the corner with the Punjab government working on draft protocols which will ensure that data of citizens is protected while providing easy access to government departments.

This was discussed and disclosed at the national conference on ‘Data Protection and the Intersection between Gender and Privacy’ organised by the digital rights advocacy organisation Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) along with its partners, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, Freedom – Pakistan and Privacy International.

The conference aimed to generate a comprehensive and interactive discussion with relevant stakeholders on data protection and the right to privacy in Pakistan. International and national trends and developments with regard to digital rights, data protection and gender and privacy were discussed at the event, which was attended by participants from across Pakistan.

The conference covered the themes of data protection and gender and privacy on the internet within the Pakistani context through panel discussions with the first of those, titled “Legal Framework of Data Protection in Pakistan”, shed light on the importance of having a data protection bill in the country.

The panellists included DRF Executive Director Nighat Dad, Pakistan Software Houses Association for IT and ITES (P@sha) representative Shehryar Hydri, Ministry of Information Technology and Telecom’s (MoITT) Ameena Sohail, Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB) member Arif Mumtaz and AGHS’ Maleeha Mengal.

During the session, Mumtaz disclosed that their government has already proposed a draft data processing protocol which covers privacy and access to the information within government departments.

“It is critical to have public discussions on the topic of data protection and privacy, as the public’s ignorance about this important topic is dangerous at both a personal and professional level. We need more local stakeholders and champions like DRF to fuel this debate continuously,” said Hydri.

The first panel was followed by a panel on “Gender and Privacy”. It addressed the gendered nature of the right to privacy.

Moderated by Shmyla Khan, it brought together diverse perspectives on the variations as well as the overlap of the gendered nature of the privacy discourse within Pakistan including award-winning multimedia journalist Amber Shamsi, Bolo Bhi Co-founder Farieha Aziz, NAZ Pakistan’s Mehlab Jameel and DRF’s Seerat Khan.

Participants said that women and sexual minorities have different privacy concerns and experience compared to men. They have to face social surveillance from society, as well as the state, which makes them all the more vulnerable.

The panellists discussed the areas of concern and developments that are needed among different stakeholders in order to account for the gendered aspect of privacy rights.

Farieha Aziz who has worked on these issues for a number of years now shared her thoughts on how the privacy landscape has changed over time and the safeguards that are now in place for women, people who are transgender, non-binary persons and different sexualities.

“Women have been driven off social media platforms,” Aziz said, painting the stark picture for women online.

She added that women had initially thought that it would an alternate platform for them to freely express their thoughts.

“On the contrary, it has become so toxic that disengagement has been the measure opted by many to keep their mental well-being intact,” Aziz said, lamenting that the one platform that was supposed to make women feel more liberated had also proven to be invasive.

In urging the government to do more, Dad said that “if the government is serious about strengthening cybersecurity, it is vital that there is stringent and proactive data protection legislation that factors in the right to privacy and freedom of expression of its citizens. Public bodies also need to be held accountable under any such legislation, without which its impact will be inadequate to meet the digital security needs of citizens.”