By Shelly Mahajan:
For the last few weeks, the name ‘Edward Snowden’ has been doing the rounds in newspapers, political magazines and television news. After Julian Assange in 2010, this year, Edward Snowden has served a severe blow to Washington’s image as a custodian of global internet servers. He is said to have made one of the most significant breaches in the history of the National Security Agency (NSA) of the US.
Snowden, a former technical contractor for United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and NSA, blew the whistle about America’s global snooping and surveillance activities in the name of its classified intelligence program, ‘PRISM’.
These revelations and Indian foreign ministry’s meek rejoinder, including its refusal to Snowden’s asylum request earlier this week has raised many concerns. The Indian side has taken up the role to defend the surveillance act with the Foreign Minister, Salman Khurshid terming ‘snooping’ as ‘information analysis’, which in his view is essential to curb terror activities . This comes in sharp contrast to responses coming from NATO allies such as France and Germany who have termed this act as ‘unacceptable’.
So, why has India chosen to provide an alibi instead of indignation in this case? Why was the US appeasement necessary?
The answer lies in the advent of India’s own version of PRISM called the Central Monitoring System (CMS). To our dismay, such a system once rolled in will screen all virtual as well as telephonic communications including landline telephone conversations, text messages and emails (draft mails too) . While how is such massive data going to be handled and to whom it would be outsourced for scrutiny is still not clear.
Moreover, let’s understand that surveillance is not a fanciful idea today. Post 9/11, introduction of the US Patriot Act of 2001 was one of the major implications that broadened the discretion of law over public. Such classified programs exist worldwide but how far have they been useful and insusceptible to misuse remains to be seen. It is not that India lacks access to intelligence but often fails to act in real time situation. As far as multilateral intelligence sharing is concerned, it is important to see it from a diplomatic perspective. A country like US can claim access to another country’s information in the name of security but will choose to disclose it only when it feels right, disregarding urgency on behalf of the other country. We cannot forget the case of David Coleman Headley (mastermind in Mumbai attacks).
A process like PRISM accesses data from nine companies including Microsoft, Google, YouTube and Facebook and doesn’t absolutely enjoy a 100 per cent success rate but a 1 in 10,102 chance of finding a fanatic. A closer look back home reveals how India lacks an official legislation to curb arbitrary surveillance and how the present IT Act is grossly misused to arrest those criticizing government or expressing themselves openly. In such a scenario and in the absence of a public debate, CMS is only going to add to our woes.
A deliberation clearly demarcating the line between privacy and security must be seen as a pre-requisite before following into the footsteps of the US. For now, let’s get over with our love for the US.