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Of Edward Snowden, Rupert Murdoch, ‘Digital Fortress’ And The Debate On Surveillance

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By Sango Bidani:

Of late, Edward Snowden has been in the news for his expose regarding the spying and tapping of US citizens and citizens of the world. It brought back one of the images of United States as ‘The Big Brother’ who is watching us. Much like his predecessor in leaking the diplomatic cables, Julian Assange, Snowden is being forced to beg for asylum in various countries of the world, including India. He is charged with grievous crimes under the American law, and America is trying every trick in the book to get him back to America and try him for the charges. Through this article, I would like to analyze how his expose is part of a larger debate that has started emerging post the Rupert Murdoch scandal in Britain and the Radia Tapes in India. Also, I would like to see how Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress can be seen as prelude to this expose by Snowden.


Edward Snowden is a former technical contractor for the National Security Agency (NSA) and a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee. He had been waiting since 2008 to expose the intelligence surveillance programs followed by USA but decided to delay coming out with the expose as he trusted Barack Obama on delivering his promises. However, in 2012, when he noticed that Obama continued with his predecessor, George W. Bush’s policy, he decided to make public the surveillance programs because he wanted to protect the basic liberties and privacy of people in the US. He was working primarily with Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian, which published a series of exposes based on Snowden’s disclosures in June 2013, where Snowden revealed information about a variety of classified intelligence programs, including the interception of US and European telephone metadata and the PRISM and Tempora internet surveillance programmes.

The questions that Snowden’s exposes cannot be seen in isolation, because the central issue that he raises has been a raging one ever since the Radia tapes scam broke out in India and the News of the World Scam, with Rupert Murdoch at the head, in Britain broke out. However, there was an essential difference between what happened in India and Britain. While both the Indian and the British controversies were isolated to phone tapping, Snowden’s expose focuses on surveillance on a much greater scale. The trials in the News of the World scam are still going on, and it would be interesting to see what kind of punishment is meted out to Rupert Murdoch and co. given the gravity of the situation that the phone tapping caused.

Interestingly, Dan Brown’s novel Digital Fortress talks precisely about this aspect of spying on America’s web addresses to avoid another 9/11 attack. In the novel, there is machine called Transltr, which decodes encrypted messages in clear text, so that the NSA can decide whether the clear text indicates any threat to the security of American citizens. Its specialty was that it could break any code very quickly. However, all of a sudden there is one code that it just cannot break for upto 18 hours, when the novel begins in right earnest. This alarms the technical experts and they fear that some virus has intruded their system or there has been some malfunction which they feel needs to be addressed quickly. Even in this novel, there is a person called Ensei Tankado, a former NSA employee who is displeased with his work and decides to devise an unbreakable code. It tracks the incredible journey of how they finally manage to decode the unbreakable code towards the end. It explores precisely the limits of electronic surveillance of the private citizens, which is one of the central reasons why Snowden decided to expose the American surveillance program.

The impact of the Snowden expose is that it shows the depths to which a country stoops in the name of gathering intelligence to prevent a major terrorist attack. And while some would have probably excused the increased surveillance in America on American citizens, given the fear that has entrenched their mind regarding another terrorist attack like the 9/11 attacks (though, I would like to believe that still many would have protested against this attack on personal privacy, which is what Snowden hinted at when he went public with his expose), the fact that Americans are not only spying on their own citizens but also European citizens, makes us ask the question as to whether it is ethically correct to spy on ordinary citizens and their conversations day in and day out, in the name of gathering information? Surely this is a question that seems to emerge as the central question from the Snowden expose, a prelude of which could be seen in Dan Brown’s novel, Digital Fortress.

I think it is important to address the question as to whether surveillance of ordinary citizens can be a way of preventing a terrorist attack from happening. It is true that we put a lot of pressure on government agencies to gather information before hand so that nothing untoward happens but then, are we really willing to pay the price? Or rather, do we think that it is completely unethical and should not be done, and that there are other ways of gaining intelligence to prevent a terrorist attack from taking place? It is a tricky question to answer but we need to find an answer to this question sooner rather than later.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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