Move Over NSA, Your Very Own Government Is Monitoring All Your Conversations!

Posted on June 24, 2014 in Sci-Tech, Staff Picks

By Mayank Jain:

Edward Snowden became an international hero for blowing the whistle about the NSA’s ‘security’ program which can make demands to software and communications companies like Google and Facebook to obtain encrypted data including personal chats, messages and status updates to check for keywords which can pose a threat to national security or fulfill any other strategic purpose.

A woman walks past a building decorated with eyes in Crimean city of Sevastopol

The revelation of surveillance wasn’t new but the scale and depth of monitoring startled people and internet erupted with protests against such surveillance which goes against the very essence of being an open and free platform for people to connect with each other. What still remains behind the scenes is the fact that PRISM is not the first and the last monitoring program and some surveillance programs have been in use even before internet was popular.

India is the largest democracy in the world but the list of our indigenous monitoring and surveillance programs runs long; into double digits if we count the programs that are about to begin any time now. We might criticize NSA and hail Snowden on internet but the government is monitoring us, even as we speak to our friends or chat with a family member over VOIP service like Skype or Google Hangouts.

The terrorist attacks of 26/11 and other attacks in the major cities of the country has only made the case stronger for monitoring communication channels for any suspicious signs which can help the intelligence agencies including the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) in nabbing suspects before they turn into miscreants. NETRA is an Indian counterpart to PRISM. Being operated in collaboration with DRDO, it is one of the more potent vehicles of extracting relevant data and encrypted messages from various services and filtering via keywords, allowing agencies to pin point the targets.

Similar in approach is another ambitious program called NATGRID for which the Home Ministry asked for 3,400 crores from the Government to implement it nationwide. The program aims to link all the departments of the government into a central database and make data sharing easier which can result in comprehensive ‘files’ on every individual which can give trends, themes and motives if analysed deeply.

The interception and analysis of the internet traffic and activity by NETRA has not begun yet, as per the sources, but there’s no dearth of monitoring programs present already which track every like, tweet and comment for anything suspicious. A more individual centered program already in operation is the Lawful Intercept and Monitoring which can pull up data about an individual’s call history, text messages, multimedia sharing activities, recharge details, location as well as other things including but not limited to browsing history.

An argument could be made supporting the monitoring by citing national security reasons which is partially justified given the scope and ease of communicating through anonymous channels on internet which poses a big threat, of course. However, India’s roughly 73% of the population uses mobile phones. This turns into potential tracking of some 893 million people and real time access to the data of a population almost double that of the United States is a scary proposition. Even from security point of view.

On the other hand, only 17.5% of the population of the country uses internet which makes it a rather small sample to detect security threats from. Over reliance on these programs can become a fairly short sighted process of detecting dangers and at the same time it will trouble people about their privacy, which does not seem to be a relevant word anymore.

While we give our data in the hands of companies like Facebook and Snapchat consciously and trust them to keep it safe, the idea of someone peeking into our private chats and the conversations is a little disturbing since an open democracy also guarantees personal freedom and space. Moreover, comments which might mirror some anti-establishment sentiments can also be taken on face value and action might follow on a totally harmless personal conversation. India is already facing a lot of flak for the recent arrests under the IT Act and Section 66A which are dangerously ambiguous about ‘offences’ and surveillance should not become another weapon in the hands of government to prosecute citizens instead of protecting them.

It’s true that you should have nothing to worry if you are not terrorists but do we want to reveal everything close to us to some data analyst and a thousand computers which are vulnerable to attacks is a question worth asking to safeguard the internet’s future and that of our democracy.

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