By Ankita Ghosh:
One night I stayed up late reading articles about Mark Zuckerberg and Prime Minister Modi. It is amusing how a young internet entrepreneur and the head of a state indulgently ‘Like’ each other’s Facebook posts as old buddies do. That night I dreamt a rather disconcerting dream. Here I am a stand-up comedian making a living out of harmless humor, and one careless status update on Facebook gets me ‘Reported’ by the Prime Minister. Minutes before the Intelligence Bureau lands up at my place I get a ‘Notification’ that the media has been seized, and we have been given 24 hours to voluntarily ‘Deactivate’ our Facebook Profiles, exceeding which period the government will do it for us. I woke up breaking into a sweat.
The topic of state surveillance over public/private life has been generously broached in literary fiction. Half a century before the British Parliament debated the Emergency Surveillance Law (recently ruled illegal by British High Court) over public privacy, George Orwell in his ‘1984‘ had imagined a Great Britain where the omnipresent big brother kept hovering over individuals. A decade before Edward Snowden leaked well kept US government secrets concerning the National Security Agency’s gross manipulation of electronic communications Dan Brown had prophesized the same in his Digital Fortress.
Recent reports and graphic illustrations anticipating the consequences of the National Encryption Policy, drafted by the Department of Electronics and Information Technology, had cooked up a storm among internet users. This policy, if implemented will make deleting personal messages shared over social networking impossible, and will also require us to turn in the encrypted code of the same to the government if asked. It will also leave us with zero user discretion to keep or get rid of personal communication and electronic text messages containing myriad interpersonal correspondence.
Electronic surveillance in domains provided for private and confidential usage like restrooms, hotel suites and trial rooms in apparel stores is considered criminal offence by the law of the land. However, the state is quick to assume an acutely condescending attitude when it finds itself in a position similar to that of the perpetrators. Additionally we’re all pretty well aware of the implications if you try to mess with the state, implicit from the jeopardy that Snowden and Assange’s lives have been thrown into. Even the reigning models of western liberal democracy have time and again demonstrated insensitivity and violation of user privacy. We will all need the best VPN service soon.
The Indian government practices full blown secrecy effectuated by the Official Secrets Act that keeps classified government data in a well- secured safety vault. Considerations for national security prompt governments to act like the paranoid parents of a 15-year-old. Needless to say, national security can’t be an excuse for the government to infringe a citizen’s right to privacy. State-sponsored mass surveillance has several forms like gag orders, data storage, financial tracking, etc. None, however, can be morally or legally acceptable.
The Modi Government launched an ambitious initiative with Digital India in early July with a great deal of media hullabaloo. Market research widely available over the internet will give you landslide figures that the government plans on feeding this project with, a whopping 4.5 lakh crores, a quarter of the country’s budget. On the upside, it endeavors to connect citizens to a single digital plane and promotes the tech savvy but the very upside would mean a rock bottom that the average user can hit. The proposed digital blockers haven’t seen so much as a trial run in the country and might end up putting personal data at risk. The New Media Wing, initially opened in 2013 and consolidated by the year-old government, under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has been churning out reports like a can factory with the objective to help the government preempt strikes on national security. How far will intelligence agencies take the license to surveillance? Does it end at the threshold of the public domain or does it cross over?
In this case, efforts to contain public opinion by installing centrally operable government monitoring systems are nothing but a cowardly government’s sad excuse to curb freedom of speech and expression. Plus, the idea of personally exchanged information being suspended in the endless abyss of cyberspace, for future reference, by a third party, without consent, is preposterous. It is a criminal act and not worthy of public acquittal. Similarly, to hold an individual accountable for opinions expressed through virtual media, more so in personal chat-boxes, can’t be conducive to the democratic spirit of the state. And perhaps the government realizes this or is simply acting to pacify public dissent as it withdrew the National Encryption Policy.