What began as an alleged and potentially embarrassing audio leak seems to have turned into an all-out national security incident as a slew of audio recordings of conversations between key government figures — including Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, PML-N leader Maryam Nawaz and some members of the federal cabinet — were released over the weekend.
The content of the recordings, which appear to be informal conversations in the PM Office — as opposed to recorded phone conversations — has not been denied or disputed by Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb, who instead insisted that these only showed that “nothing illegal had happened”.
However, off-the-record conversations with officials suggest alarm bells have been sounded in all corridors of power, with questions being raised about flaws in the cyber security of the highest office of the land.
Sources in PM House told Dawn that the issue was “quite serious” and it was being investigated by the relevant quarters on the directives of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, who was in London when the leaks were first reported.
When asked whether the leaks featured in any conversations in London, a senior PML-N leader privy to the talks said that PM Shehbaz would handle the issue upon his return to Pakistan.
On Saturday, a recording of PM Shehbaz surfaced where he was discussing with an unidentified official the possibility of facilitating the import of Indian machinery for a power project that was a concern of Maryam Nawaz Sharif’s son-in-law, Raheel.
On Sunday, further recordings surfaced, which were shared on social media by several PTI leaders, concerning Finance Minister Miftah Ismail and the resignations of PTI lawmakers from the National Assembly.
One clip purportedly features a conversation between PML-N Vice President Maryam and the premier about Mr Ismail, wherein a voice thought to belong to the former says the erstwhile finance minister “doesn’t know what he is doing” and wishes for the return of PML-N stalwart Ishaq Dar.
A second clip allegedly concerns a conversation between the prime minister, Defence Minister Khawaja Asif, Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah and Ayaz Sadiq about the resignations of PTI lawmakers from the National Assembly.
A third clip purportedly features a conversation between Maryam Nawaz and PM Shehbaz regarding the return of former army chief retired Gen Pervez Musharraf.
According to a statement from the Ministry of Information, Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb said the audio leaks were “proof that nothing illegal happened” and neither was any unfair advantage provided to anyone.
Rana Sanaullah also tried to play down the matter, saying nothing definitive could be said about the PM House’s security being breached until the leaks were investigated.
“I don’t think we should take them so seriously, since this is so common,” he told a news channel.
HACKED OR BUGGED? Although PTI leader Shireen Mazari and others raised questions over the possible ‘bugging’ of the PM Office, the possibility that this may be the result of a cyberattack was mentioned by former information minister Fawad Chaudhry, who tweeted: “In a major cyber attack on PM Office 100 hours of conversations of PM and cabinet members have been leaked to an international hacker website.
“The hacker has asked for $345,000 for detailed record, that is about 8 GB. The conversations include political, economic and security related issues.”
Fawad Chaudhry’s claim of a hacker making off with the data seems to originate from reports that a hacker or a collective — that has been involved in previous cyberattacks on behalf of neighbouring India — listed for sale a data dump containing conversations from the Pakistani PM Office.
Users claimed that the clips leaked online were shared by the alleged hacker(s) as proof that they were indeed in the possession of sensitive data and set a minimum bid of around 18 0BTC, or Etherscan tokens, worth around $345,000.
Some users also suggested that the purported hacker(s) — who originally posted sometime in August — claimed to have more records, including conversations of both the current and former prime ministers, i.e. Shehbaz Sharif and Imran Khan. However, Dawn has been unable to independently verify these claims.
Some IT experts Dawn spoke to said the issue was “quite serious” and blamed the lack of an effective strategy to counter cyberattacks of this scale.
This echoed the concerns shared by Fawad. Talking to Dawn, the PTI leader demanded a thorough investigation into the security breach and said that the findings of the investigation must be made public.
He said it was responsibility of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) to ensure cyber security of the PM Office and debug important conversations.
When contacted, a senior military official in the Inter-Service Public Relations (ISPR) also held IB responsible for the leak and said the military and its spy agencies have nothing to do with that department.
“The entire Prime Minister Office looked after by the IB in terms of security,” the official said.
Information Technology expert Shahzad Ahmed told Dawn that it was difficult to say anything with authority on when and how the conversations were hacked, unless a thorough investigation was conducted.
However, he blamed the lack of government policy and interest in thwarting cyberattacks on important state institutions as one of the causes of the breach. He hoped that the incident would prove to be a wake-up call for the government, and it won’t simply be forgotten or brushed under the carpet.