When they see us
India’s recently acquired awareness that one could be watched at all times will bring behavioural changes in the populace — inadvertently stifling minority opinion
Imagine a prison housed in a large circular building with a tall tower in the centre of the circle, within which one security guard is present, looking over his jurisdiction, keeping a watchful eye on all occupants of the structure under his command. What I described here is a 'Panopticon', a theoretical structure designed by an English philosopher in the 18th century, as a way to increase the efficiency of monitoring prisoners in a particular complex. The catch, however, is that the lone prison guard would be housed in a way where no prisoner could tell if they were being surveilled at any point in time. The idea was that the prisoners would know they could be surveilled upon at any point but won't know for sure if they are specifically being watched. As India woke up to the news of the Pegasus-WhatsApp infiltration last week, 1.3 billion people in the country acquired that knowledge.
The country finally realised that even WhatsApp – most commonly considered a secure space albeit mistakenly for a while now – was not impregnable. While most people working in government, aware of latest tech news, and journalists had already started moving away from the Facebook-owned messenger service, our country has now become aware of its vulnerability to surveillance, much like US citizens learnt of the same in 2013 when Edward Snowden blew the whistle on NSA's PRISM.
Looking at the current internet space in India, it wouldn't be unthinkable to draw parallels between the dystopian Panopticon and the internet world that has recently been opened up to an increasingly rising population of the country. And, it has become paramount, more so than ever, for a discourse on privacy and surveillance to now consider the behavioural consequences that an Indian population will have to face in the context of a people continuously fearful of being watched, with the full knowledge that the authorities controlling the surveillance are more than just capable of running a smooth snoop-op.
But of course, when French philosopher Michel Foucault had dissected the behavioural impact of the Panopticon on prisoners in Discipline and Punish (1975), he was looking at a population without access to the internet and confined to one physical space with no other option. Nevertheless, the conclusions Foucault drew were nothing if not radical. According to him, the fear of being surveilled upon at any given time coupled with the knowledge that such snooping was something that his authoritative guardian was fully capable of, led to an assumption that they are being watched at all times, which, in turn, led to their behaviours transforming into one of complete conformity to avoid what the philosopher describes as 'punishment'.
And, according to academic studies that have surfaced since the PRISM whistle was blown, the online space is no different, with the idea of being surveilled playing more than just a correlational role on the willingness of an individual to express political opinions in the new-age stage for public discourse — social networking platforms.
In a time when opposition politicians use social media as a substitute for hitting the ground and the ruling party uses the same to drive their on-the-ground campaigns to the internet – the latter with much more efficiency – it is extremely important to understand how the fear of being surveilled at all times will affect the way people in India express political opinions on such platforms.
There were two major reactions that emerged out of the Pegasus-WhatsApp debacle. One that placed blame on the Facebook-owned company and the other that questioned whether the government itself was targetting users to watch their activities unknowingly. Now, even after the NSO Group, which created Pegasus, has said publicly that it does not sell the spyware to anyone other than governments or government agencies, the majority opinion tends to hold Facebook and WhatsApp accountable for the breach.
This could be because of the social media giant's track record with user-data being stolen and used for all political purposes and ends (read: US Presidential elections 2016 and Cambridge Analytica). However, this could also be because as an inadvertent result of the awareness that one could be watched at any point in time, minority opinions in the country are getting silenced.
To explain it better, there are two reactions to the knowledge that you could be watched by your government whenever it wanted. One that places "national security" higher than privacy in the priority list and argues: "What do I have to hide?" But the other one that asks the question: "Should I even express something if it will anger the powers that be?" Countless studies conducted since the existence of PRISM show that people who conform to the first idea, generally accept the idea of a government having the power to surveil them without any just cause. And, the very same studies show that people who subscribe to the second idea are generally opposed to such authority.
As a result of the knowledge that anyone's activities online could be monitored, people who have opinions differing from the majority start altering their behaviour in a way to remain "invisible" and avoid what Foucault called "punishment" whereas people with the majority opinion feel empowered to come out and express their political views. While research has shown that this knowledge of surveillance does not stop activists or politicians or even some journalists from expressing their views, such a world will, unfortunately, leave no breathing room for minority opinions to take root.
Given how people who subscribe to the 'nothing to hide' argument are more likely to volunteer personal data to government agencies, one has to think: Is it not good for this government that such an opinion climate is created? Maybe Big Brother is happy leaving minority opinions under the ice, leaving room for majority views to get passed around; especially if it wants to govern by bringing a pliant populace willing to conform to requests of personal information, irrespective of the intrusive consequences it might bring with it.
Abhinay Lakshman is a reporter at Millennium Post. Views expressed are strictly personal
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