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Maybe It Is Time To Invest In Some Carrier Pigeons – Kushan Mitra


Kushan Mitra
Even the police unlawfully monitors citizens’ activity by illegally tracking their mobile phone calls and also their emails. The Union Home Affairs Ministry has talked of banning devices that can intercept communications, but the devices still exist.

Driving down a highway in the Netherlands, one notices closed-circuit television cameras placed every few hundred metres. In the British capital London, CCTV cameras peer down on the citizenry at every street corner. And it is not just that; Governments across the world have routinely intercepted online data traffic, have peered into unsecured information and even monitored social media sites.

But when you put up information on Facebook or Twitter, it is for public consumption, and if the public happens to include intelligence officers, well, frankly, there is not much you can do about it. However, as a recent story in The Hindustan Times pointed out, apparently CCTV footage of couples canoodling on Delhi’s metro trains have been leaked onto global pornographic sites.

What is frightening is not that the Government oversees my information, but how it takes care of the information. Whether or not the CCTV footage indeed leaked out or these were just videos shot by fellow passengers,  remains to be seen. The cost of making out in public is, well, just that. But, the fact is that in recent times the Government of India has been particularly lax with private information.

A case in point is the Radia tapes. While it is true that the disclosure of these tapes blew the lid off one of the greatest scandals in Indian history, showed up some lobbyists, journalists and corporate fixers, it’s also true that these were private conversations. There are things that you and I say in a conversation when we believe it is private; some of those things might disclose our prejudices, and we all have prejudices.

There are a couple of recent developments that lead to doubts. The first is the Government’s ‘Content Monitoring System’. At a recent Google Hangout with the Minister of State for Communications and Information Technology, Milind Deora, a journalist, Nikhil Pahwa, asked him to defend the system. The Minister’s reply indicated the Government thinks of CMS, a system that will monitor everybody’s web traffic as being for the good of the citizenry.

A recent article in The Economic Times said that the Government had reached a deal with Canadian mobile phone manufacturer Blackberry for an interception system for Blackberry devices. While in the recent past, the stock of this once popular device has fallen as consumers pick up touch-screen enabled Android and iOS devices, Blackberry devices are still widely used by the business and, importantly over here, the political community in India.

It might be likely that some terror groups, and there are several of them in India, might use these devices; but the bulk of these devices is used to conduct regular business. The issue that bothers several people about this interception, on Blackberry devices or the CMS, is: Who in the Government will take responsibility for the protection of data? In a phone-call or email that somebody has been intercepting lawfully, how can citizens trust that the information garnered from that interception will not be made public? Yes, if charges are laid and a case goes to court, such conversations can, and ought to be made public, but what will stop an overzealous police officer from revealing information to a headline-hungry media?

The recent suicide by Bollywood actor Jiah Khan was tragic. But what was equally tragic was the almost casual way in which her private text messages were revealed to the media. This happened well before any charges, weak as they eventually were, had been laid on her former boyfriend.

Also, there was the recent case where the call records of Arun Jaitley, the leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, were trying to be sourced by a rogue police constable. This blew open the racket of some ‘detectives’ who claim that they can source details which you would expect to be secure. It is not just worrying that some private companies openly sell such information, whether actively or through corrupt employees, but much of this information is sourced from ‘official’ sources.

What is even scarier is that some police forces take it upon themselves to unlawfully monitor citizens’ activity by illegally tracking their mobile phone calls and even their emails. Even the Union Ministry of Home Affairs has constantly remarked about these illegal intercepts of telecommunications and has made noises about banning devices that can intercept communications — but these devices still exist.

That said, those who want to procure such information through whatever means possible will always be there, corporate espionage and political skullduggery is not going away anytime soon, and such criminals have and will continue to exist. However, it is important that the Government takes palpable measures to reassure the people at large that their private information will remain secure. Whether it is given out to online marketers who will spam you or to people more interested in blackmail, these leaks ought to be plugged.

To ensure that leaks are plugged, there should be legal provisions to punish those who are found guilty of giving out private information held by the Government. But, above and beyond that, the Government should ask itself why it needs to monitor the private communications of every citizen of India. Does it really need to know what two lovebirds are doing over a video chat? There are legal provisions, where police forces and intelligence agencies can get warrants to intercept information. If information is acquired illegally without a warrant, it cannot and must not be the basis of any conviction.

What is worrying has been the terrible silence of some liberal commentators on the issue. The conversation has quickly shifted to why India did not give Edward Snowden asylum. Had the CMS been proposed by a BJP Government, there would have been an epic maelstrom by now. Instead, as our civil liberties are taken away, we discuss puppies.

The Russian Government’s intelligence headquarters at the Kremlin in Moscow is moving to typewriters to prevent leaks. Even today, if someone wants to have a ‘safe’ conversation, they do not use mobile phones. Technology has changed life for the better, but a ham-fisted Government sees it as a threat. Maybe it is time to invest in some carrier pigeons.

The original post was published here.

Author bio: Kushan is currently Managing Editor, Digital and New Projects at The Pioneer and takes an active interest in digital issues.