Kazakhstan’s Censorship Under the Guise of National Security

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By: Hammaad Salik & Humaira Waqar

In recent years, different countries have started to monitor Internet traffic subsequently restricting their citizen’s access to certain websites. What starts being small research projects end up becoming nation-state funded acts of espionage.

As of last Wednesday, all local Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in Kazakhstan have been instructed by the administration to install a government issued certificate (root certificate) labeled as ‘trusted certificate’ or ‘national security certificate’. As a result of which all citizens of Kazakhstan are now unable to access the Internet unless they download the said certificate onto their machines and devices. This is Kazakhstan’s bid to further monitor the Internet traffic of its citizens thereby allowing authorities to decrypt and read secure web traffic. This certificate allows the government to decrypt HTTPS internet traffic prior to sending it to the final user enabling them to surveil all aspects of their online activities. Future technologies in cyber space will have certificate-based authentication as a Defacto method of authentication.


The Kazakhstan government twice before has tried to implement such a surveillance mechanism and relented only after the administration was sued by multiple organizations. Each time the mechanism has been positioned (or marketed if you may) as securing its citizens from cyber threats (such as hackers and internet fraudsters) other malignancies without success. This time the surveillance was to be initiated only for the country’s capital – Nur Sultan. However, citizens in other parts of Kazakhstan have also found themselves unable to access the Internet unless they downloaded and installed the certificate.  Major superpowers have similar surveillance programs implemented – In China we have the PLA’s God Eyes, in UK GCHQ’s Tempora program, and in USA the famous NSA’s Prism program.

Kazakhstan has a history of curbing online freedom of its citizens. As of April 2018, the people are no longer able to leave anonymous statements on the Internet. Websites that fail to register the names of their users face hefty fines. In retaliation, websites have completely removed the comment sections.  In July 2017 the country’s intelligence agency, the National Security Committee gained complete authority over Kazakhstan’s single gateway to the Internet, the centralized telecommunications network. The government is known to shut off the Internet completely during mass operations or riots within the country. As of January 2015, starting a rumor i.e. voicing your opinion can land you in prison for up to a decade. The citizens have pushed back by taking their commentaries directly to social media websites such as Facebook etc. China’s Internet has been cut off from the rest of the world for many years and has their own version of Google, Amazon, Facebook, WhatsApp etc. As James Griffith wrote in his book ‘The Great Firewall of China’ this not only protects the interest of the state and corporations by blocking access to the rest of the world but also facilitates them in pushing their agendas. It is not difficult to use personal VPN’s to peak over this government mandated firewall – however an individual does so at the great risk of incarceration.  Similarly, in April of this year, the Russian Duma approved a bill to unplug the Internet from the rest of the world – thereby advocating to creating its own Internet called the Russia’s RUNET.

Kazakhstan has a ‘not free’ status on the Freedom House’s Freedom on the Internet Report and is ranked 158 out of 180 countries on the RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index. Numerous platforms that we take for granted in Pakistan are routinely blocked by the Kazakhstan’s government namely, Vimeo, Flickr, Tumblr and The Daily Mail etc.

Citizens have resorted to self-censor their words for fear of consequences of voicing their opinion too loudly. Cyber savvy citizens ensure they use applications with end to end encryption such as Telegram, WhatsApp etc.

In the light of the above, it is evident that Kazakhstan’s government wants to control internet browsing and viewing of its citizens. Where as in the rest of the world, media and communication have become more dependent on an online and internet-based presence, Kazakhstan has curtailed the access of its citizens significantly and has infringed heavily upon the privacy of its citizens. Should the government of any nation have so much power or perhaps this is the dark side of democracy.

Authors:

Hammaad Salik is an entrepreneur and member advisory Strategic Warfare Group. He aims to provide accurate and transparent cyber information to the general public.  His expertise are Cyber Warfare Operations and Kinetic Warfare. He can be reached at [email protected].

Humaira Waqar works at an international post-secondary institute in Canada and is affiliated with Strategic Warfare Group. She researches energy, cybersecurity, policy formulation and implementation in the context of social and societal perspective. She can be reached at [email protected]