The Information Age and Pakistan

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Muhammad Azam Khan[1]


(All sorts of information criss-cross the space today. No country or society can stay economically viable, let alone competitive if the flow of information therein remains hostage to state disruptions and restrictions as in Pakistan today.  Security threats, the financial and ideological allure of Islamist radicalism and bad governance must not be allowed to defeat Pakistan[1] in an age defined by hyper connectivity.  The flow of information in the 21st century cannot be stopped. What a person views on his or her computer is none of the state’s business and the state should not demean itself by attempting to control personal choices of individuals.[2] Furthermore, there is a need to understand that freedom to access of information is a basic right of the people, and must not be denied to them-especially in an era so profoundly dependent on digital paraphernalia.[3] – Author)

The dawn of a new era

The contemporary world is now a global village where people across continents are able to communicate real time and in an interactive way[4]. The information age, also known as the internet age, computer age or digital age, is a period in human history characterized by the shift from traditional industry to an economy based on the manipulation of information[5]. The onset of the information age is associated with digital revolution, just as the industrial revolution marked the onset of the industrial age[6].

The advent of information technology and advances in telecommunication sector has created a platform for the free flow of information, ideas and knowledge across the globe[7]. There is an increased dependency on information and communications technologies (ICTs) – the term used to describe hardware, software, people, organizations and policies.  Societies worldwide are now emerging as information and or knowledge societies. The rapid economic, social, cultural and political changes in societies are today fuelled by development of information superhighways. Governments are transpiring as electronic governments[8].

Technological changes and lower costs have also democratized the media and information environment: Internet and cell phone access is increasingly ubiquitous, and individuals and organizations are ever more reliant on electronic communication.  Today, news, commentary and video can be produced and accessed equally by first world media producers, Washington decision-makers, lowa housewives, Afghan shepherds, Chinese university students, Colombian insurgents and Al Qaeda members[9].

The information environment now connects almost everyone, almost everywhere, almost instantaneously.  The media environment has become global and there’s no longer such thing as “the news cycle” everything is 24/7.

A transforming and expanding world

Uninterrupted electronic access to resources and services is considered an indispensable contemporary need. By virtue of developments in ICTs, the world has witnessed an unparalleled global flow of information. Internet-based social networking websites have grown rapidly in popularity in recent years, where one website, facebook, was boasting over 59 million members worldwide as of 2008[10].  Such developments have also enabled the conversion of information mainly in analogue formats to digital formats for further dissemination[11]. A worldwide transformation from analogue to digital is accordingly underway. In 2002, digital data storage surpassed non-digital for the first time. By 2007, 94 percent of all information on the planet was in digital form.[12] This transformation has also included e-initiatives like e-health, e-government, e-democracy, information rich portals, digital libraries etc.

The basic enabler in this transformation however is the growth of telecommunication infrastructure. There has been unprecedented expansion in the use of cellular phones, personal computers, networks, wireless networks, interactive television etc. Worldwide IT spending is meanwhile expected to rise by 4.2 percent in 2013 to $3.7 trillion, a pick from 1.2 percent growth forecast in 2012. Spending on devices like PCs, mobile phones and printers is expected to reach $666 billion up 6.3 percent[13].

According to International Telecommunication Union, as the world’s most populated region, Asia Pacific is the global leader in ICTs. By the end of 2007, the region accounted for 1.4 billion mobile cellular subscription and more than 551 million internet users, accounting for 39 percent of the world total. From 2000 to 2007, the region added 415 million users, with an annual growth of 24 percent (compared to 19 percent globally)[14].

There are currently more than one billion people online across Asia Pacific (1.016 billion to be precise- nearly 46% of the world’s total), and 623 million people access the web via mobile. On the other hand, online advertising spending in Asia Pacific reached US$24.8 billion in 2011, making the region second only to the US, with US$34.5 billion[15].   According to Internet World Stats, there were an estimated 1,076,681,059 internet users in Asia at mid-year 2012 (30 June 2012).  This represented about 27.5% of the population worldwide and 44.8% of the population in Asia. And compared to 2000, this was a 841.9% growth[16]. The top ten internet countries in Asia at mid-year 2012 (30 June 2012) are ranked hereunder:[17]

1. China: 538,000,000

2. India: 137,000,000

3. Japan: 101,228,736

4. Indonesia: 55,000,000

5. South Korea: 40,329,660

6. Philippines: 33,600,000

7. Vietnam: 31,034,900

8. Pakistan: 29,128,970

9. Thailand: 20,100,000

10. Malaysia: 17,723,000

Given the capabilities of computers and other information processing technologies, such as cellular phones and the Global Positioning Systems, future conflicts too will occur in a battle space that covers not only physical geography but cyberspace[18] as well[19].

Challenging National Security

The proliferation of information technologies computer, faxes, modems, the internet, satellite communication and social networking has today important implications for national security. As with the security environment more broadly, the rapidly changing information environment creates both new challenges and new opportunities for the governments[20].

Of particular importance to those charged with national security is the fact that increasing levels of international commerce are conducted over the internet, and also increasing levels of government service. International funds transfers, now surpassing over a trillion dollars a day, are carried by computer networks. Power grids, banks, government databases, large corporate enterprises, news networks, transportation facilities, and many other essential components of civilized life are increasingly “on the net,” delivering services or conducting critical communications. Disruption of such services or communications could, someday it is feared, resemble or approach in severity of an actual physical attack such as a military strike or a major terrorist incident[21].

This “new terrain” of computer warfare or cyber terrorism poses some serious and unfamiliar challenges to national security. First, all forms of warfare in the past have involved a threat to geographically specific assets by equally geographically specific threats — such as massed armies or ballistic missiles. One of the chief characteristics about computer attacks is their ambiguity in nearly every dimension: it’s difficult to ascertain where the attack is coming from, who is behind it, what the motive is, whether it is the work of a determined enemy or merely a curious trespasser, etc[22].

The information environment has been changing right along with the broader security environment. If a computer attack were to occur in the midst of some other crisis of national security, says Roger Molander, an expert now at the RAND Corporation, the very ambiguity of the attack may complicate decision-making tremendously[23].

Soft Power in the Information Age

Robert Dahl, a leading political scientist, defines power as the ability to get others to do what they otherwise would not do[24]. Power, in other words, is the ability to achieve one’s purposes or goals. The dictionary tells us that it is the capability to do things and to control others. Traditionally, the test of a great power was its strength in war. Today however, the definition of power is losing its emphasis on military force. Instead, technology, education and economic growth are becoming increasingly significant in international power[25]. In the global information age, the relative importance of soft power-cultural and ideological appeal has increased since soft power rests on credibility. Countries that are likely to gain soft power in an information age are: [26]

Those whose dominant culture and ideas are closer to prevailing global norms (which now emphasize liberalism, pluralism, and autonomy)

Those with the most access to multiple channels of communication and thus more influence over how issues are framed; and

Those whose credibility is enhanced by their domestic and international performance.

Decentralizing Effects

As computing power has decreased in cost and computers have shrunk in size and become more widely distributed, their decentralizing effects have outweighed their centralizing effects.  In its diverse forms like Face book, You Tube, Twitter, the internet has created a system in which power over information is much more widely distributed.   Compared with radio, television, and newspapers, controlled by editors and broadcasters, the internet creates unlimited communication one-to-one (via e-mail), one-to-many (via a personal home page or electronic conference), many-to-one (via electronic broadcast), and perhaps most important, many-to-many (online chat room).  Internet messages have the capacity to flow further, faster, and with fewer intermediaries.  Central surveillance is possible, but governments that aspire to control information flow through control of the internet face high costs and ultimate frustration.  Rather than reinforcing centralization and bureaucracy, the new information technologies have tended to foster network organization, new types of community, and demands different roles for government[27].  In a globalized, deeply interlinked world, the four giants of the internet age-Google, Apple, face book and Amazon-have helped foment huge benefits to consumers and businesses; promoted free speech and aided in the spread of democracy across the world[28].  States that ban or limit these new channels of information do so at their own peril. These actions undercut civil liberties and democracy increasing fascism and isolate the country in the international order.

Global Risks-2012

‘The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks 2012 report published recently identifies three sets of global risks based on the survey of responses from over 450 experts from government, industry, civil society and academia. Amongst these risks, the most serious is the confluence of fiscal, demographic and societal pressures that foreshadow a bleak or dystopian picture of the future’[29]. The report describes how fiscal and demographic trends are colliding—because of the ageing population in developed nations and the youth bulge in developing countries, both of which demand greater resources from financially challenged and heavily indebted governments.

At both ends of the demographic spectrum, according to the report the young and old could confront income inequalities and a skills gap that could threaten societal and political stability. The report also highlights the challenges of new technology, financial interdependence and resource depletion that are not attached by policies, regulations or institutions that can serve as a protective system. ‘The third constellation of risks identified in the report, comes from what the report calls the ‘dark side of connectivity’. Describing hyper connectivity as the world’s present reality- with over 5 billion mobile phones-, together with internet user and cloud based applications, the reports says, this has magnified the threat of cyber attacks and digital disruptions thus pointing to an area of heated international debate-the lack of rules to manage digital space even ‘as power shifts from the physical to the virtual world’[30].
Threats and Challenges

There are indeed dangers inherent in this era.  Since economic, financial, psychological, and political sectors of society have become contested ground, traditional distinctions between military and economic security, or between domestic and foreign security have blurred.  As the world becomes more linked, diverse state and non-state actors now have greater access and operational maneuverability to conduct malicious activities. Many industrialized nations continue to suffer damaging cyber attacks against their public and private national security infrastructure[31]. Sources of non-state cyber threats include, but are not limited to, hacker, hacktivists, terrorists, and organized crime groups[32].

Hackers are generally thrill-seekers who regard accessing secure computer networks as a challenge.  They usually don’t possess the technical skills to cause widespread, longstanding damage to computer networks; however, given the increasing availability of advanced tools, it is plausible that a skilled hacker could significantly disrupt critical information systems.  Such a possibility becomes even more real if a nation state seeking to avoid attribution gives hackers the tools to disrupt or destroy critical networks[33].   For example, in early 2011, the computer security company McAfee, inc., revealed that a Chinese hacker in Heze City, Shandong province, likely operating with external assistance, stole financial documents related to oil and gas field exploration and operational details on data acquisition system from five undisclosed western multinational companies.  It underscored how hackers could target not only the defense industrial base, government, and military computers, but global corporate and commercial targets[34].

By contrast, ‘hacktivists’ use cyberspace to promote their political beliefs.  While often focusing on propaganda, they can cause significant disruptions to computer networks, especially if technical or financial support is provided by external parties[35].  With the proliferation of technologies, terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda also could cause catastrophic damage.  For example, in 2010 a terror suspect with links to Al Qaeda acknowledged that the latter had conducted offensive operations that included denial of service attacks against the Israeli prime minister’s computer server[36].

Organized crime groups penetrate computer networks to steal money and trade secrets or financial information.  There is evidence that Central European crime groups have defrauded U.S citizens and businesses of approximately $1 billions and as much as $1 trillion on a global scale in the past year[37].  Accordingly U.S fears that the New York Stock Exchange or the Federal Reserve System are today potential targets of such an attack[38]. Chinese hackers have meanwhile shown new brashness recently by cracking into the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and other media organizations, apparently to monitor and perhaps preempt negative coverage of China[39].

Global Financial System in the Information Age

Although the physical infrastructure of the world’s financial system is largely secure, the software that runs on it is not.  Bank bosses and regulators are becoming more concerned by the threat posed to financial stability by networks of hackers that have launched a series of attacks on banks in the recent past.  Some 30 large global banks, mostly American, have suffered from a series of assaults designed to shut down their websites.  These attacks are known as distributed denial of service (DDOS) attacks because hackers harness an army of infected computers to bombard the target with internet traffic with the intention of overloading it.  They are relatively unsophisticated.   But they have periodically frustrated customers trying to use online services at banks including JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo and Citigroup.  They have also shown some novel features, such as the conscription of computers in “cloud computing” datacenters, increasing the amount of spurious traffic generated.  Several people familiar with these attacks say there are strong indications that the hackers are state-backed; many suspect the involvement of Iran[40]. On the other hand, official sources in Washington maintain that a nondescript 12 storey building in Shanghai run by unit 61398, a bureau within the general staff of the People’s Liberation Army is the biggest source of cyber attacks by the Chinese government[41] against the US.


There is little recourse to respond to these attacks because discussions about building offensive cyber forces have been avoided, with many nations fearful of the strategic implications of this approach. Twice in 2011 the US decided not to launch cyber strikes against foreign targets; the first was against Libya in support of Operation ‘Unified Protector’[42] and the second was in Pakistan to support its operation against Osama bin Laden. This decision was made because a US cyber operation could set a precedent that nations such as Russia and China might exploit to subsequently launch their own cyber offensives[43].  However this now seems to be changing fast at least in the US.

A new White House report (2013) declares that ‘the pace of economic espionage and trade secret theft against U.S. corporations is accelerating.  The report traces most of that espionage to China, while listing several specific cases in which proprietary information belonging to Ford, DuPont, General Motors, Dow Chemical, Cargill, Motorola and other U.S firms ended up in Chinese hands’[44].   Some analysts maintain that the US too has  now begun to attack computer networks in other countries.  Malwares like Stuxnet and Flame have been used for attacks on Iran’s nuclear energy program.  U.S-based Mandiant Internet security firm recently confirmed that US government “cyberwarriors” have collaborated with the Israeli regime to disrupt Iran’s nuclear energy program by attempting to infect its computer networks.  Some European governments, including Germany, were reportedly also involved in the anti Iran effort.  Not to be left behind, Iran is also said to be developing a serious capability “a cyber army” which would present a formidable power to developed nations whose countermeasures may prove futile[45].

Pakistan’s Projected Demographic Profile in the new Age

The United Nations’ 2010 projection show that Pakistan’s population will be over 205 million in 2020 and rise to 240 million in 2030[46]. Not only is Pakistan’s population growing faster than other developing nations, its demographic profile is also changing. Almost half of the population remains illiterate while 25 million children of school going age do not have access to education. This means millions of young people-in a population in which 66 percent are below the age of 30 –will be entering the labour market with an inherent disadvantage[47].

Reaping Rewards

Despite a youth bulge and widening economic disparity, society in Pakistan has not been behind in drawing benefits from contemporary creativities of the information age. While the future outlook remains grim for Pakistan, the society is continues to reap windfall rewards. This can be gauged from the following statistics:[48]

  • Population: 180m
  • # of broadband subscribers: 2m+
  • Total # of internet users : 25m+ (worldwide: 2.4bn)
  • Total # of Face book users :