Home > Opinion > Surveillance: A double-edged sword?

Surveillance: A double-edged sword?

  |  2017-01-19 20:52:28.0  |  New Delhi

Surveillance: A double-edged sword?

Unmindful of disclosures by Wikileaks, while responding to a request for urgent hearing in the matter of 'biometric information' based e-identity and 12-digit biometric unique identification (UID)/Aadhaar number related projects, when Chief Justice Jagdish Singh Khehar headed three-judge bench asked, "Surveillance to what. Is it a big deal?" the beneficial owners of World Bank Group in general and International Monetary Fund (IMF) in particular must have patted their backs with satisfaction.

Notably, Wikileaks has named two Indian companies namely, Shoghi and Clear Trail beside Shield Security, an Indian venture of a UK based entity underlying the emergence of a situation where such companies sell the ability to spy on the entire population at once and for permanent record as part of strategic interception through digital surveillance technology.

The arrival of presumptuous Surveillance State is linked to the emergence of a Database State. In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of Prison, 1975, Michel Foucault observed that surveillance is based on a system of permanent registration. It is a decisive economic operator. In recent times, global politics, diplomacy, and trade have been reverberating with the impact of such surveillance in USA, Russia, and European countries.

A chapter titled "On the Map: Making Surveillance Work" under the section Revolutions in the International Monetary System in the book titled Silent Revolution: The International Monetary Fund 1979–1989 corroborates Foucault's contention. This book was published by IMF in 2001. This chapter deals with the principles and procedures of surveillance. It admits that "Surveillance, a central pillar of IMF activities and responsibilities in the modern era, is not an easy concept to grasp." It will have us accept that only the heads of public institutions can grasp and communicate the meaning of 'surveillance'. IMF commiserates with the lesser mortals stating that it knows that 'surveillance' does sound terrible. This is understandable. But it does not sound terrible to the three-judge bench.

Jacob A Frenkel, an official of IMF is quoted in the book as arguing that this word 'surveillance' should be made to sound benign. It "should give way to concepts of cooperation, partnership, and consultation; of bringing on board the rest of the world's considerations." This publication states that "In practice, surveillance has encapsulated all of the above notions, but at its best, it has been motivated by and has itself promoted a spirit of international cooperation."

This publication informs that the first official use of the term came in June 1974. IMF was concerned that "Few, if any countries, however, were prepared to be subjected to surveillance in that strong sense. The 1980s, therefore, became a decade of experimentation, in which the staff and management of the Fund constantly probed and prodded to see how far they could go in persuading countries to respond positively to Fund analysis and advice." This concern of IMF is deeply touching. But IMF's efforts did yield results and by the mid-1990s, a "silent revolution" had happened in countries like India, it infers.

This IMF publication states, "If surveillance was to have any substance, the Fund would have to develop that influence: through the power of persuasion (Fund management and staff to country authorities), through peer pressure (country to country in the forum of the Fund), and through publicity (Fund to the public). The relative merit of each of these channels was always the subject of much debate. Was publicity appropriate, or would it conflict with and even nullify the benefits of persuasion and peer pressure?" The publication uses the word 'Fund' to refer to IMF.

IMF asks itself, "Did surveillance mean that the IMF was expected to be a financial Interpol, seeking out and punishing errant behavior, or should its role be that of a faithful confidant of those entrusted with implementing macroeconomic policies around the world?"

Have most public institutions in India become "a faithful confidant" of World Bank Group?

There is a revelation in the publication that IMF is concerned with the "viability of military spending" as well. IMF took a formal position on the role of military spending in national economic policy in October 1991. If this is not an exercise in surveillance, which admittedly sounds 'terrible', what else is it?

Referring to the incident of surveillance of his mobile phones, in an article titled My Call Detail Records and A Citizen's Right to Privacy published in Gujarati, Hindi, Urdu, and English, Arun Jaitley as Leader of Opposition, Rajya Sabha wrote, "The Government has recently made the existence of the Adhaar number as a condition precedent for undertaking several activities; from registering marriages to execution of property documents. Will those who encroach upon the affairs of others be able to get access to bank accounts and other important details by breaking into the system? If this ever becomes possible the consequences would be far messier." It is clear that once law makers become part of the government they become enlightened about the benefits of surveillance.

It may also be noted that UIDAI awarded contracts to three companies namely, Satyam Computer Services Ltd (Mahindra Satyam), as part of a "Morpho led consortium", L-1 Identity Solutions Operating Company and Accenture Services Pvt Ltd of US for the "Implementation of Biometric Solution for UIDAI" on July 30, 2010. Is it a coincidence that Morpho (Safran group) sponsored the award tothe Chairman, UIDAI and the former got a contract from the latter? Following Central Information Commission (CIC)'s intervention in the matter of application filed by Col Mathew Thomas, an octogenarian defence scientist, and submissions by the author on his behalf, UIDAI shared its contract agreement with French and US biometric technology companies but crucial pages are missing from the contract agreement after the CIC heard the matter on 10 September 2013. The Technical Bid and Commercial Bid documents are missing in the case of M/s Accenture Services Pvt Ltd and L-1 Identity Solutions for Biometric Technology. The Writ Petition in this regard is pending in Delhi High Court. The next date of hearing has been fixed for February 21, 2017.

Meanwhile, the appointment of J Satyanarayana as part-time Chairman of UIDAI on September 6, 2016 does not inspire an iota of confidence. The report Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology examined the work of Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DeITY), Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, asked about the surveillance by National Security Agency (NSA) of the US. J Satyanarayana, as Secretary, DeITY formally communicated that India has no problem if they conduct surveillance for metadata, in fact, it is acceptable and tolerable but "incursion into the content will not be tolerated and is not tolerable." The idea of UID was incubated in this very Department.

The old maxim, 'If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear' has been given a very public burial. This has been thoroughly debunked. Notably, this myth is attributed to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Only blind faith in a Utopian State can persuade people to think that they have nothing to fear after trusting their personal sensitive information to a Database State.

Seventy years old Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben who has been teaching as Professor at the University of Venice and New York University predicted in 2004 that the "bio-political tattooing" is the precursor to what would later turned into a normal identity registration of a good citizen. It provides a continuity between the world of the Nazi concentration camp and contemporary democracy. It paves way for a genocidal liberal order. Biometrics "concerns the enrollment and the filing away of the most private and incommunicable aspect of subjectivity", which results in the capture of the human body by the authorities for good. Till now such assault on the private human body was an exception, now it is becoming the norm.

The reference to "such other biological attributes" in Section 2 (g) of Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and Other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016 and the definition of the "Biometrics" under Information Technology (Reasonable security practices and procedures and sensitive personal data or information) Rules, 2011 under section 87 read with section 43A of Information Technology Act, 2000 underline that it includes "the technologies that measure and analyse human body characteristics, such as 'fingerprints', 'retinas and irises', 'voice patterns', 'facial patterns', 'hand measurements', and 'DNA' for authentication purposes". It is abundantly clear that the plan of UID/Aadhaar-based surveillance does not end with collection of finger prints and iris scan, it goes quite beyond it.

According to Concise Oxford Dictionary, surveillance means 'close observation, especially of a suspected person'. So far Supreme Court has not had the occasion to examine the most glaring aspect of cyber biometric surveillance which entails close observation of all the present and future Indians indiscriminately as suspects. In the book Imprint of Raj: How Fingerprinting was born in Colonial India, Chandak Sengoopta (2003) reveals how biometric identification technique was fine-tuned by Bengal Police after it was developed by Sir Francis Galton, an English eugenicist who supported slavery. Eugenics and slavery have long been abandoned, the scientific claims of biometrics, too, have been found to be dubious.

If surveillance is not a big deal, then why is Edward Snowden in Moscow since June 23, 2013, why Australian journalist Julian Assange is in Ecuadorian Embassy in London since July 19, 2012, and why was Chelsea Elizabeth Manning (Bradley Edward Manning) sentenced to 35 years imprisonment in August 2013? If surveillance is indeed such an innocent act then why is the entire US establishment paranoid about surveillance from Russia?

Isn't the word 'surveillance' being made to sound benign as desired by IMF?

(The author is member Citizens Forum for Civil Liberties. His doctoral thesis is on corporate crimes and accountability of public institutions. Views are personal.)

Share it