Millennium Post

Shh! The government is watching

The recent home ministry order allowing government agencies to use cyber surveillance on citizens opens up a new can of worms

There is no better time to demand privacy than in adolescence. I remember fighting with parents to keep the bedroom door locked, sneaking the long cord of the telephone (and later the cordless phone) inside the room to make calls to friends; the whole idea of getting a few moments away from inquisitive folks was precious to the teenaged self. Adulthood, of course, offers many more chances at privacy. Your own apartment, exclusive office cabin, even the precincts of the car, come together nicely when one finally grows up and becomes financially independent. But today, there is no privacy really.

The recent home ministry directive allowing 10 government agencies to intercept, monitor and decrypt any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer/phone device, opens all citizens to the prying eyes of the government. This is not new actually; the UPA government authorised this rather quietly 10 years ago. The current government has merely added the 10 security and intelligence agencies to the list. A decade ago, no opposition party protested this move. Today, this is a part of a new debate: Is the government snooping on us?

Governments all around the world have, over the last few years, authorised cyber surveillance. France, Germany, UK, China, New Zealand, Bahrain, Iran, Syria, Russia, Zimbabwe, Canada, and Vietnam, have in some form or the other been collecting information on its citizens and sharing it with other partner countries.

Our lives, the most intimate parts of it, are accessible to all. Even before governments signed off of these orders, we as consumers had already thrown ourselves open to data mining. Every app that we use, whether it is Google or Facebook, has been collecting information about our consumption patterns, our digital transactions, our likes and dislikes. Google knows exactly where we are, every time we use Google maps to reach a destination. We have been feeding information to companies for years; earlier we did not realise it, today we do not care. The problematic issue though is the ease with which the government can now access this information.

While the issue of national security is important and cyber surveillance can go a long way in helping secure the country further, the jury is still out over its efficacy. Several security experts have recently opined that while cyber surveillance creates a perception of security, it may not exactly lead to safer environments.

Along with this, is also the larger question of the limits to such surveillance. Who decides who to snoop upon and when to stop? No matter that Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has clarified that interception or monitoring must be authorised by the home secretary, there is still no real guarantee to prevent the misuse of such powers. This is India and we are best known to subvert laws and find loopholes to suit our ulterior purpose. It is also important to remember that even our Prime Minister Narendra Modi's best mate Amit Shah was accused of illegally snooping on a young woman in 2009. Therefore, the dangers of such sweeping powers should be a matter of grave concern to every citizen. It is not just your browsing history that can be misused. Without proper checks and balances, such an order can lead to racial and religious profiling. Now, who will monitor that?

(The author is a journalist and media entrepreneur. The views expressed are strictly personal)

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