Surveillance without borders: grave new world

IN Privacy | 17/06/2013
As we protest the US intrusion into our lives, could we be more vigilant of the intrusions in our own backyard and speak up about them as well?
Geeta Seshu

The news that India is the fifth (with 6.3b pieces of information) in the list of top countries under surveillance by the US government has resulted in a frenzy of newspaper articles, television debates and tweets about privacy violations. We learn from newspaper reports that the Indian government has registered its objection to this surveillance too. But only just!

Guardian newspaper’s report on the PRISM and the Boundless Informant programme of the US government’s National Security Agency (NSA) only elicited an official response from the US government that the surveillance was done in its national interest and no US citizen was being spied upon or his or her privacy violated.

However, the US government sponsored surveillance is intrusive, violates the fundamental human right to privacy and audaciously and arrogantly believes it can collect any data it pleases of citizens of other countries, free of geographical borders.

But are we in India any different?

The Justice A P Shah report on privacy makes sound recommendations on ‘national privacy principles’ on the collection, storage and destruction of information.The report strongly recommended a Privacy Act and there are already a few draft bills in circulation.

So while we still don’t have a privacy law in place, what we do have is a draconian law in the Information Technology Act, 2000 that allows for the monitoring, interception and blocking of all electronic communication (Sec 69).

We already have zero transparency in the matter of telephone tapping, despite a 1997 Supreme Court judgement in the PUCL case. The court held that telephone-tapping is a serious invasion of an individual's privacy and laid down guidelines about the bureaucrats who could authorize surveillance and recommended a review committee.

Indeed, the guidelines have been followed in the breach and there isn’t any semblance of a review committee – at least not in the public domain. The list of ‘bureaucrats’ and agencies authorized to conduct surveillance has only grown in the last decade. In addition, we have a Centralised Monitoring System (CMS) that will intercept phone data without the ‘cumbersome’ process of going through telecom companies.

We have a Social Media Lab inaugurated with much fanfare by the Mumbai police to monitor all social media communication of youth in the city. And, of course, we also have the Aadhar unique identification number which has absolutely no protection in place for safeguarding the private information of card-holders across different agencies.

But what we most certainly don’t have is any informed public debate on surveillance and privacy. Nor on accountability from the  keepers of our private selves.

As we protest the US intrusion into our lives, we would do well to be more vigilant of the intrusions in our own backyard and speak up about these as well.



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