In the name of surveillance

Police and private security personnel monitor security cameras at the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative on April 23, 2013 in New York City. Photograph:( Getty )

WION New Delhi, India Jul 04, 2016, 05.31 AM (IST)
The Essar leaks — a series of damning revelations on the illegal phone-tapping of politicians and industry leaders by the corporate giant — have wreaked the sort of havoc that the proverbial Pandora’s Box would find difficult to match. The victims, some of the most influential names in the country, were clueless that the erstwhile Hutchison Essar Limited, a mobile service provider, was eavesdropping on their conversations at the behest of its major business partner. For once, the high and mighty appear as vulnerable as the common man who is equally in the dark about his breach of privacy. The Essar tapes — limited in scope of operations — offered merely a sneak peek into the clandestine world of surveillance, where every move, every spoken word, every detail of a person’s life is recorded and stored for future use. The reality of mass snooping, carried out on a global scale, is too horrifying to contemplate. It is immensely expansive and mind-bogglingly complex, constituting a parallel universe that’s frighteningly close to our everyday existence. Let’s just say that a supreme Eye-Ear power is the new god. It has silently entered the home and workplace and planted itself bang in the middle of our lives. In this age of electronic surveillance entire populations are subject to intense scrutiny through extremely sophisticated devices. At the top of the game is the United States of America, keeping an eye on every pie.

Surveillance is neither new nor exclusive

Months after British writer George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 was published, the Orwellian nightmare had started to unravel. The notorious seven-year McCarthy era, beginning in 1950, set into motion the witch-hunting of thousands of US citizens accused either of being a Communist or of being a ‘fellow traveller’. The bastion of free speech and democratic ideals had fallen to scaremongering. A paranoid nation had revealed itself, and over the years this fear has returned to the haunt successive US governments with alarming regularity. Simply put, America’s obsession with surveillance, both within the country and way beyond its shores, stems from the apprehension of losing its domineering role in geopolitics.

Two watersheds in American history have generously contributed to the understanding of modern-day surveillance: 9/11 and Edward Snowden’s unmasking of US’s global intelligence operations. The former, an unprecedented assault at the heart of US, had given birth to a new enemy — Islamic fundamentalism — and ushered in a new era of hostilities, with the Cold War being buried. The latter struck at the heart of US’s spy programmes, carried out through extensive internet and phone surveillance of millions of Americans. US’s National Security Agency (NSA) tapped into the servers of nine internet firms, including Google and Facebook, to sweep up information. The Right to Privacy in the most robust of democracies had been completely disregarded in the name of national security.

Barring UK — the Sancho Panza to US Don Quixote’s misadventures — the rest of Europe is still relatively inexperienced in matters of surveillance. But, the shift to greater governmental supervision has begun in the light of recent terror attacks.

Indian spooks

In an increasingly integrated world, India couldn’t have remained immune to the temptations and the so-called imperatives of intelligence gathering, especially in view of the rising threat of Islamic terror attacks. The absence of privacy laws made it easy to create an elaborate apparatus that would enable the government to peer into the lives of its own people. Most surveillance in India is carried out through mobile networks, given that 78% of the population have access to mobile phones. Armed with five laws, especially the Information Technology (IT) Act, the government has gone about collecting information on an extraordinary scale. The four sections of the IT Act, namely 44, 66A, 69, 80 pose a serious threat to a person’s freedom from governmental interference. The maze of licensing agreements — evident in a jamboree of abbreviations such as ISP, UAS, MLATS with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and Technology Service Providers (TSPs) — satiates the government’s appetite for information. Ironically, the government stores these data in a manner that’s vulnerable to cyber attacks. All this while the country’s intelligence agencies have complete access to your profile; they are privy to details that you might hesitate to share with your spouse. How’s that for guarding your life against hostile forces?

Moving ahead, your banal life is of avid interest to other organisations as well who are hungry for details that might throw light on your consumption patterns. You have unwittingly given up your privacy when you opted for a mobile connection or a bank account or sent your first email.

Privacy Index data

Perhaps not the most exhaustive of sources, but the EMC Privacy Index can be a starting point for a robust discussion on a crucial right. In its 2014 study that covered 15,000 people across 15 countries to rank nations “based on consumer perceptions and attitudes about data privacy, and willingness to trade privacy for greater convenience and benefits online”, Indians seemed particularly eager to share their details for improved online experience. This is a marker of our lack of awareness about the far-reaching consequences of such actions. No wonder, elected governments of the most populous democracy have encountered feeble resistance against surveillance. It’s a classic case of missing the forest for the trees.

Drawing the line

Two years ago, the UPA government was busy giving final touches to Right to Privacy Bill, 2014, which aims at protecting individuals against misuse of data by government or private agencies. It had invited various stakeholders, including its ministries, to air their concerns and misgiving. The bill is still being discussed and debated.

The Big Question: Where does the government draw the line in its quest for national security? Without the requisite checks and balances, it will only function in an autocratic manner, silencing voices that raise the uncomfortable issue of privacy. Are we then increasingly heading towards a police state?