Branchless banking is a boon to the urban and rural poor, allowing the delivery of financial services outside at minimum cost. Mobicash (Mobilink) and Easypaisa (Telenor) are offering these services across the country including in remote areas. Consequently, branchless banking can increase access to financial services for the poor who do not have access to debit cards or ATMs. It is a promising step towards the financial inclusion of the unbanked belonging to the lower-income groups.

However, it has become a recurring practice for government agencies to link technological progression and freedom of information as analogous to ‘suspect-terrorist-activity’, thereby validating a draconian imposition of surveillance and authority. The Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) of Sindh police has expressed concern regarding the use of branchless banking facilities, suggesting that criminal and militant groups might misuse the facility for terror financing, particularly in remote areas. While there is no existing evidence of any criminal activity or terrorism being carried out by militant groups under this service, the CTD Sindh prescribes that the National Counter Terrorism Authority (Nacta) and the State Bank of Pakistan ensure that franchise facilities (especially in remote areas) should be made to maintain extremely accurate and comprehensive records of all individuals who avail this facility.

For now, the measures taken seem fair. Individuals receiving or sending amounts larger than Rs, 50,000 would be subject to investigation and their personal information (CISP or BISP cards) would be recorded and regulated by the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) and service providers. The CTD also recommended that the SBP should implicate any account used by a person listed on the Fourth Schedule of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA).

It is good that the CTD is being vigilant, however, we have seen such concerns turn into laws that clamp down on the rights of the common citizens, while ostensibly being security measures against terrorist entities. The Cybercrime Bill was one of these examples. The risk is that much like the Cybercrime Bill, organisations like the PTA, FIA and law enforcement agencies would be granted omnipotence with no checks on their actions and would be able to criminalise any activity that comes under the ephemeral definition of ‘terrorism’. Such prescriptions and legislations ultimately morph into a chokehold that discourages technological progress, awareness, and inhibits the transfer of information.