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Balancing vigilance and privacy

by Prasad Krishna last modified Sep 05, 2013 10:53 AM
As the government steps up its surveillance capabilities, the entire social contract between the state and citizens is being reformulated, with worrying consequences.

This article by Prashant Jha was published in the Hindu on August 18, 2013. Pranesh Prakash is quoted.

The Indian state is arming itself with both technological capabilities and the institutional framework to track the lives of citizens in an unprecedented manner.

A new Centralised Monitoring System (CMS) is in the offing, which would build on the already existing mechanisms. As The Hindu reported on June 21, this would allow the government to access in real-time any mobile and fixed line conversation, SMS, fax, website visit, social media usage, Internet search and email, and will have ‘unmatched capabilities of deep search surveillance and monitoring’.

Civil society groups and citizens expressed concern about the government’s actions, plans, and intent at a discussion organised by the Foundation for Media Professionals, on Saturday.

The context

Usha Ramanathan, a widely respected legal scholar, pointed to the larger political context which had permitted this form of surveillance. It stemmed, she argued, from a misunderstanding of the notion of sovereignty. “It is not the government, but the people who are sovereign.” Laws and the Constitution are about limiting the power of the state, but while people were being subjected to these restrictions, the government itself had found ways to remain above it – either by not having laws, or having ineffective regulators. States knew the kind of power they exercised over citizens, with the result that ‘impunity had grown’.

“There is also a complete breakdown of the criminal justice system,” Ms Ramanathan said. This had resulted in a reliance on extra-judicial methods of investigation, and ‘scape-goating’ had become the norm. ‘National security’ had been emphasised, re-emphasised, and projected as the central goal. “We haven’t paused to ask what this means, and the extent to which we have been asked to give up personal security for the sake of national security.” It was in this backdrop that technology had advanced by leaps, and made extensive surveillance possible.

The implications are enormous. The data is often used for purposes it is not meant for, including political vendetta, keeping track of rivals, corporates, and digging out facts about a citizen when he may have antagonised those in power.

Pranesh Prakash, director of the Centre of Internet and Society (CIS) looked back at the killing of Haren Pandya, the senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader in Gujarat. Mr Pandya was using the SIM card of a friend, and it was by tracking the SIM, and through it his location, that the Gujarat government got to know that Mr Pandya had deposed before a commission and indicted the administration for its role in the riots. Eventually, he was found murdered outside a park in Ahmedabad. The Gujarat Police had accessed call details of 90,000 phones.

It is also not clear whether mining this kind of data has been effective for the national security purposes, which provide the reason for doing it in the first place. Saikat Datta, resident editor of Daily News and Analysis, and an expert on India’s intelligence apparatus, said a core problem was the absence of any auditing and over sight. “There needs to be a constant review of the number of calls, emails under surveillance, with questions about whether it is yielding results. But this does not happen, probably because a majority is not for counter-terrorism. There would be trouble if you build accountability mechanisms.” When he sought information under RTI around precisely such issues, he was denied information on the grounds that it would strengthen ‘enemies of the state’.

Anja Kovacs, who works with the Internet Democracy Project, said this form of “mass surveillance” criminalised everybody since it was based on the assumption that each citizen was a “potential criminal”. She also pointed out that having “more information” did not necessarily mean it was easier to address security threats – there was intelligence preceding the Mumbai attacks, but it was not acted upon. She added, “Most incidents have been resolved by traditional intelligence. Investing in agencies, training them better could be more effective.”

Bring in the caveats

Few argue that the state is not entitled to exercise surveillance at all. In fact, a social contract underpins democratic states. Citizens agree to subject some of their rights to restrictions, and vest the state with the monopoly over instruments and use of violence. In turn, the state – acting within a set of legal principles; being accountable to citizens; and renewing its popular legitimacy through different measures, including elections – provides order and performs a range of developmental functions.

This framework, citizens and civil liberty groups worry, is under threat with governments appropriating and usurping authority to conduct unprecedented surveillance. Citizen groups, technology and privacy experts came together globally to draft the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communication Surveillance.

It prescribed that any restriction to privacy through surveillance must be ‘legal’; it must be for a ‘legitimate aim’; it must be ‘strictly and demonstrably necessary’; it must be preceded by showing to an established authority that other ‘less invasive investigative techniques’ have been used; it must follow ‘due process’; decisions must be taken by a ‘competent judicial authority’; there must be ‘public oversight’ mechanisms; and ‘integrity of communications and systems’ should be maintained. (Full text available on Prakash of CIS, which has done extensive work on surveillance and privacy issues, said, “An additional principle must be collection limitation or data minimisation.” Giving the instance of Indian Railways seeking the date of birth from a customer booking a ticket, Mr Prakash said this was not information which was necessary. But it could be used by hackers and many other agencies to access an individual’s private transactions in other areas. The UPA government is finalising a privacy Bill, but its final version is not yet public, and it is not clear how far the government would go in protecting citizen rights.

ASPI-CIS Partnership


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