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Monday, July 15, 2024  
08 Muharram 1446  

Internet disruption: What is ‘web monitoring system’ undergoing upgrade in Pakistan

Pakistan reportedly purchased WMS from Sandvine under Imran Khan in 2018
An internet cable is seen at a server room in this picture illustration. Reuters/File
An internet cable is seen at a server room in this picture illustration. Reuters/File

Social media users and other consumers, in particular PTI supporters, in Pakistan have recently experienced episodes of internet outage and the country’s caretaker information minister, Murtaza Solangi, told reporters this week that disruption was caused by the government’s attempts to install a ‘web monitoring system.’

People who follow internet development in the country know that the so-called ‘web monitoring system’ was acquired by Pakistan under Imran Khan in December 2018 at a cost of $18.5 million.

The controversial web monitoring system is now becoming a tool to target Khan’s PTI, which held three virtual rallies in the runup to the February 8 general election. Two of the rallies were marred by internet disruption, according to Net Blocks, an international cybersecurity watchdog.

Reports about Pakistan’s purchase of a web monitoring system under Imran Khan have already appeared in the press, including Pakistani press. New York based Coda Story was the first publication to break the story in October 2019. It was then reported by local and international media outlets.

Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) was quick to offer an explanation back then and ended up confirming the planned development.

What is web monitoring system

The web monitoring system or WMS that Pakistan acquired in 2018 from Canada based firm Sandvine uses deep packet inspection (DPI) to monitor communications over the internet.

It is akin to postal censorship back in the days of your great-grandfather when during the war people at the post office would open letters, read them and cover several lines with black ink. This censorship was different from the post office refusing to deliver every letter to a certain address.

In the world of internet, we have (a) conventional filtering that only looks at the header of packets (chunks of data) — similar to looking at the address on the envelop — and (b) deep packet inspection or DPI that “ locates, identifies, classifies and reroutes or blocks packets with specific data or code payloads.“

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So, in our postal censorship analogy, while some people at an address continue to receive their letters others get letters with blotted out lines. Of course, in today’s world, this censorship is carried out using computers and it requires extensive processing – so much processing that the task was impossible until a few years ago.

But now several countries are using WMS including Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and several other countries.

The firewall at your office also uses the same technology to keep the hackers out of the company network.

As with the firewall, an aggressive implementation of DPI could lead to poor internet speed.

Upgrade of web monitoring system

Pakistan’s purchase of WMS from Sandvine was never confirmed officially and it is not clear if the country is still using the same system. However, vendors could be changed. Back in September 2020, when Pakistani gamers faced packet losses, it was assumed that either Sanvine was upgrading the system or ‘a new vendor was being tried for a new use case.’

This could very much be the case now. Either Pakistan is upgrading the system to apply more curbs or it is changing the vendor to deploy the web monitoring tools in a different way.

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