Sunday, 23 June 2013

Prisms,Whistle-blowers, and invasion of Privacy in the twenty-first Century

First came Julian Assange and then, Edward Snowden. The whole controversy about the privacy of individuals and Governments all over the Globe in prying into private SMSs., e-mails, and all content posted on the net has come at a time when  the Right to Privacy is being re-examined in the context of the information technology age. This is an age when more and more of us are relying on the internet to communicate, and in many cases, we are eager to divulge even our most intimate and private details on the net. In times when writing letters the old way (sometimes appropriately decorated and scented) are now considered obsolete and passé, we have turned to the electric form out of a sense of convenience and perhaps laziness. Dependence on technology has exposed us to the risk of being monitored by various global agencies. But then, are we as a generation of tech-savvy nerds averse to an invasion of our privacy especially in times when we like to boast about our exploits loudly on social networking sites? The purchase of a new car, a promotion, the  coming of a new member in the family, are all loudly proclaimed on various social networking site. It is as if there is a need to announce to the whole world about our achievements. But then we don’t just like to flaunt our achievements, we often are prone to sharing our disappointments, frustrations, and failures on the net.
Why then are we complaining about an invasion of our privacy when we have readily and intentionally adopted a form of technology which exposes our private lives to the prying eyes of investigative agencies which have all the hacking tools and the leisure to peep into our private lives, often perhaps for possible tit-bits of information which would perhaps help boost a flagging … drive? But then the investigative agencies might also blame us for posting all those juicy details about our real or fictional conquests and one night stands suggesting that we meant them to be read after all! In India, the question of the right to Privacy of Individuals came to the forefront in the Radia Tapes controversy in which it was supposed that the executives conversations were recorded by an investigative agency. Then there was this controversy about the taping of phone calls of an Army head. All these things make one wonder about how Big Brother finds the time to do all this! But then why blame just Government Agencies when we have known of unscrupulous individuals and private organisations that resort to hacking, phishing and what not to exploit vulnerable individuals so that they might take advantage of them and perhaps exploit them mentally physically and relieve them of their bank balance!
It goes without saying that the quantum of data that these investigative agencies would have to sift through would be so prohibitive and daunting that one wonders if it would be possible for such agencies to sift through the personal details of all the people who have access to the internet! So, then, would it be possible to protect one’s privacy by hiding in the midst of huge mounds of information? It is clear the the computing power of super-machines   that would be used to go through all that  information would have to be measured  in teraflops per second and not  any less, and even then the task would take ages to sift through! I guess, therefore that  not everyone’s privacy could possibly at stake and it would only be possible to selectively or randomly access personal accounts of targeted individuals! In this case, well known tax-evaders, paedophiles, and other criminals would be easily exposed to surveillance because of their profiles, and more over because of that software that readily filters out the dangerous from the innocent! Choosing a technology that is open to infiltration by  hackers and phishes, Trojans and worms has meant that we  have deliberately agreed to compromise our privacy in favour of the benefits of technology; we have become too lazy to write a letter the old way and want instant gratification!
The introduction of the Right To Information Act has been a right step for people of India especially since it gave the individual the right to access information which was till now being kept under wraps by Babu’s and Bureaucrats who thought that it would be prudent to withhold information which could then be sold for a higher amount! So now, even Government organisations  have to divulge information when required. What we are talking about here is the change in the environment of the society from a closed information society to that of an open-information society. It goes without saying that information is empowerment, and it empowers you further to know beforehand about the plans and intentions of the person who is sitting in the opposition in the parliament. It goes without saying that being forewarned is equivalent to being empowered, especially when you are pitted against a criminal or a terrorist organisation.
India has its own monitoring agency called as the Central Monitoring System. This is an organisation which can monitor every byte of information of individuals who have come under the scanner of the taxman, or those who present a danger to the society. The organisation is able to access communication data in the form of e-mails, SMS and phone calls. This organisation is not subject to oversight by the courts. The Prism Program is an electronic surveillance program conceived by the U.S. National Security Agency. It has been in operations since 2007 and has the ability to mount a surveillance operation on electronic information from all over the world. Mounting a surveillance and monitoring electronic traffic is very easy for this organisation since most of the servers for e-mail providers, and social-networking sites are located in the United States.
What then is the issue with surveillance? The greatest fear felt by most of people is that private information might be misused and used against the individual! When private information is accessed and then broadcast on a wide scale, it might result in mental trauma, shame, embarrassment, and other such inconveniences. Easy access to personal information on social network sites are known to have resulted in broken marital relationships, and even scandals that have brought down entire Governments! What would happen if we had a Watergate Scandal today? Or if secret e-mails between presidents and their film-star girlfriends were accessed? Such information should it fall into wrong hands would lead to disaster! When nations are at war, it makes good sense to invade the privacy of important people of the other countries in order to learn about their weaknesses. Information that is of an embarrassing nature can then be used against them. In ancient times, Chanakya knew very well about the importance of espionage and surveillance of the, “enemy” and so he evolved such a system with great perfections. One wonders if some wars were fought without any real fighting taking place because someone had access to embarrassing information about opponents! But then one can argue that spying on one’s own people is unethical and a breach of trust and faith that the people might have vested in their popularly elected governments, well, I guess the idea of trust should be both ways. We need to build an atmosphere of mutual trust between the government and the citizens. In times of violence and terrorism, this unfortunately doesn’t seem to be the case. Viewing of people of particular communities with suspicion, extreme prejudice towards people of a particular religion and the increasing levels of the sophistication of attacks by terrorist organisations has resulted in an increasing sense of paranoia in the society and governments all over the world. The 20/11 incident might have been averted if there had been advance information about the perpetrators of that crime!

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