Privacy and Security Can Co-exist

Posted by Sunil Abraham at Jun 22, 2011 03:55 AM |
The blanket surveillance the Centre seeks is not going to make India more secure, writes Sunil Abraham in this article published in Mail Today on June 21, 2011.

TODAY, the national discourse around the “ right to privacy” posits privacy as antithetical to security.

Nothing can be farther from the truth. Privacy is a necessary but not sufficient condition for security. A bank safe is safe only because the keys are held by a trusted few. No one else can access these keys or has the ability to duplicate them. The 2008 amendment of the IT Act and their associated rules notified April 2011 propose to eliminate whatever little privacy Indian netizens have had so far. Already as per the Internet Service Provider ( ISP) licence, citizens using encryption above 40- bit were expected to deposit the complete decryption key with the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology. This is as intelligent as citizens of a neighbourhood making duplicates of the keys to their homes and handing them over at the local police station.


Surveillance in any society is like salt in cooking — essential in small quantities but completely counter- productive even slightly in excess. Blanket surveillance makes privacy extinct, it compromises anonymity, essential ingredients for democratic governance, free media, arts and culture, and, most importantly, commerce and enterprise. The Telegraph Act only allowed for blanket surveillance as the rarest of the rare exception. The IT Act, on the other hand, mandates multitiered blanket surveillance of all lawabiding citizens and enterprises.

When your mother visits the local cybercafe to conduct an e- commerce transaction, at the very minimum there are two levels of blanket surveillance. According to the cyber- cafe rules, all her transaction logs will be captured and stored by the operator for a period of one year. This gentleman would also have access to her ID document and photograph. The ISPs would also store her logs for two years to be in compliance with the ISP licence ( even though none of them publish a data- retention policy). Some e- commerce website, to avoid liability, will under the Intermediary Due Diligence rules also retain logs.

Data retention at the cyber- cafe, by the ISP and also by the application service provider does not necessarily make Indian cyberspace more secure. On the contrary, redundant storage of sensitive personal information only opens up multiple points of failure and leaks — in the age of Nira Radia and Amar Singh no sensible bank would accept such intrusion into their core business processes.

Surveillance capabilities are not a necessary feature of information systems.

They have to be engineered into these systems. Once these features exist they could potentially serve both the legally authorised official and undesirable elements.

Terrorists, cyber- warriors and criminals will all find systems with surveillance capabilities easier to compromise.

In other words, surveillance compromises security at the level of system design. There were no Internet or phone lines in the Bin Laden compound — he was depending on a store and forward arrangement based on USB drives. Do we really think that registration of all USB drives, monitoring of their usage and the provision of back doors to these USBs via a master key would have led the investigators to him earlier?


Increase in security levels is not directly proportional to an increase in levels of surveillance gear. This is only a myth perpetuated by vendors of surveillance software and hardware via the business press. You wouldn't ask the vendors of Xray machines how many you should purchase for an airport, would you? An airport airport with 2,000 X- ray machines is not more secure than one with 20. But in the age of UID and NATGRID, this myth has been the best route for reaching salestargets using tax- payers’ money.

Surveillance must be intelligent, informed by evidence and guided by a scientific method. Has the ban on public WiFi and the current ID requirements at cyber- cafes led to the arrest of terrorists or criminals in India? Where is the evidence that more resource hungry blanket surveillance is going to provide a return on the investment? Unnecessary surveillance is counter- productive and distracts the security agenda with irrelevance.

Finally, there is the question of perception management. Perceptions of security do not only depend on reality but on personal and popular sentiment. There are two possible configurations for information systems — one, where the fundamental organising principle is trust and second, where the principle is suspicion.

Systems based on suspicion usually give rise to criminal and corrupt behaviour.


If the state were to repeatedly accuse its law- abiding citizens of being terrorists and criminals it might end up provoking them into living up to these unfortunate expectations. If citizens realise that every moment of their digital lives is being monitored by multiple private and government bodies, they will begin to use anonymisation and encryption technology round the clock even when it is not really necessary. Ordinary citizens will be forced to visit the darker and nastier corners of the Internet just to download encryption tools and other privacy enabling software. Like prohibition this will only result in further insecurity and break- down of the rule of law.

The writer is executive director of the Bangalore- based Centre for Internet and Society.

Read the original published in Mail Today here