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Millennium Post

Big Brother's here indeed!

Big Brothers here indeed!

Imagine if someone could access your closet and hold you liable if you resisted disclosure. It would be an intrusion into your privacy – and that is unconstitutional. Well, in the age of computers, data is as important to us as the things in our closet and we certainly do not want people peeping into it. However, that luck may have run out for Indian citizens. The government is eager to see what its citizens are up to, of course for the benefit of national security. "Orwellian state", could be an apt aphorism, as former finance minister P Chidambaram said on this highly contentious order passed by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on December 20. The order cites that all computers will now come under the monitoring of a few agencies directed by the ministry in India. Power of widespread surveillance, entrusted to the Intelligence Bureau, Narcotics Control Bureau, Enforcement Directorate, CBI, NIA and the others, stands on section 69 (1) of the Information Technology Act, 2000, suggesting that the Central Government can ask any agency to monitor computer devices if the government feels the "need" for it. While the question of why the government felt the "need" still swims in ambiguity, an imposition of the same has hit shore. Essentially, ideas of defence, security, sovereignty and integrity come forward as requisite justifications for the move. While safeguarding national interest remains sacrosanct, this irrefutable intrusion on privacy could've been better executed – the same privacy which is a Fundamental Right enshrined in our Constitution. No wonder then, the country is signalling fears of a nascent surveillance state — a mutual opinion of the opposition and large sections of the civil society too. Unsurprisingly, George Orwell's observation of how an attitude and a brutal policy of draconian control is destructive to the welfare of a free and open society matches this new mandate. To the layman, this surrender of digital privacy is like any other government mandate that must and will be followed. But the opposition has opined on how the government has literally become a "stalker". A string of eminent politicos has come out in criticism of the move. Ministers, bureaucrats, lawyers, judges, businessmen, executives, et al will be scratching their heads to figure out why the government has resorted to glance through personal files and supposedly secure information. The agencies will be taking up the task of monitoring, intercepting and decrypting data (generated, transmitted, received) stored in computers. Without a state of Emergency, citizens have been reduced to potential military threats. Orwell's novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, indeed seems to be reality.

A commoner may be rattled by the benefits of a "surveillance state". Jeopardising the free society narrative, this mandate can have an individual (service provider or the owner of the computer) incarcerated for seven years along with a pecuniary fine on account of non-compliance. So, not only is an individual forced to be checked but is also subject to punitive measures upon resistance. To top everything, the remarkable sweeping powers of the investigation agencies to track and record data on any computer can be severely misused, which leads to double insecurity on the public's account. There is no scarcity of hacking instances to counter that. All this is exactly what, ideally, can perturb the public and catalyse protests leading to chaos. Depriving the nation of its privacy is lending an autocratic mask on the crippling face of democracy. In its motivation of battling national security and eliminating potential threats, the government cannot possibly treat every citizen as a potential criminal. As a democracy, we function on the tenant of 'innocent before proven guilty' – and our life ought to be exercised in the same spirit of trust. Unless a government can learn to trust its people, its journey of gaining credibility from the mass will be tampered by several layers of deficits. While in practice there is little that the public can do to resist this enforced decision, it will nurture discontent and suspicion – already dangerous for a democracy as seemingly threatened as ours.

It started with Aadhaar wanting us to give out our personal details before a landmark judgement prevented it, though the process had already amassed enough sensitive data before the injunction. We can now expect this surveillance spree to extract more sensitive data before it faces any hindrance from functioning — an overruling court order backed by PILs citing the unconstitutionality of the approach. From common perspective, the government will surely derive nothing by peeping into the computer unless a culprit is caught, which is rarely 'me'. But, keeping that aside, a huge question mark hovers over the true intent of this draconian move. Nevertheless, Big brother's here indeed!

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