CIS LogoIn his keynote speech at the 29th Chaos Communications Congress, Jacob Appelbaum stated that surveillance should be an issue which concerns “everyone´s department”, especially in light of the NSA spying on citizens all over the world. True, the U.S. appears to have a history in spying on civilians, and the Corona, Argon, and Lanyard satellites used by the U.S. for photographic surveillance from the late 1950s is proof of that. But how does all this affect India?

By tapping into the servers of some of the biggest Internet companies in the world, such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft, the NSA does not only gain access to the data of American users, but also to that of Indian users. In fact, the “global heat map” of the controversialBoundless Informant data mining tool clearly shows that India ranked 5th worldwide in terms of intelligence gathering, which means that not only is the NSA spying on Indians, but that it is also spying on India more than most countries in the world. Why is that a problem?

India has no privacy law. India lacks privacy legislation which could safeguard citizens from potential abuse by different types of surveillance. But the worst part is that, even if India did have privacy laws, that would still not prevent the NSA from tapping into Indians´ data through the servers of Internet companies, such as Google. Moreover, the fact that India lacks a Privacy Commissioner means that the country lacks an expert authority who could address data breaches.

Recent reports that the NSA is tapping into these servers ultimately means that the U.S. government has access to the data of Indian internet users. However, it remains unclear how the U.S. government is handling Indian data, which other third parties may have access to it, how long it is being retained for, whether it is being shared with other third parties or to what extent U.S. intelligence agencies can predict the behaviour of Indian internet users through pattern matching and data mining.

Many questions remain vague, but one thing is clear: through the NSA´s total surveillance programme, the U.S. government can potentially control the data of billions of internet users around the world, and with this control arises the possibility of oppression. It´s not just about the U.S. government having access to Indians´ data, because access can lead to control and according to security expert,Bruce Schneier:

“Our data reflects our lives…and those who control our data, control our lives”.

How are Indians supposed to control their data, and thus their lives, when it is being stored in foreign servers and the U.S. has the “right” to tap into that data? The NSA leaks mark a significant point in our history, not only because they are resulting in corporations seeking data request transparency, but also because they are unveiling a major global issue: surveillance is a fact and can no longer can be denied. The massive, indiscriminate collection of Indians´ data, without their prior knowledge or consent, and without the provision of guarantees in regards to how such data is being handled, poses major threats to their right to privacy and other human rights. The potential for abuse is real, especially since the larger the database, the larger the probability for error. Mining more data does not necessarily increase security; on the contrary, it increases the potential for abuse, especially since technology is not infallible and data trails are not always accurate.

What does this mean? Well, probably the best case scenario is that an individual is targeted. The worst case scenario is that an individual is imprisoned (or maybe even murdered – remember the drones?) because his or her data “says” that he or she is guilty. Is that the type of world we want to live in?

What can we do now?

Let´s start from the basics. India needs privacy legislation. India needs privacy legislation now. India needs privacy legislation now, more than ever.

Privacy legislation would regulate the collection, access to, sharing of, retention and disclosure of all personal data within India. Such legislation could also regulate surveillance and the interception of communications, in compliance with the right to privacy and other human rights. A Privacy Commissioner would also be established through privacy legislation, and this expert authority would be responsible for overseeing the enforcement of the Privacy Act and addressing data breaches. But clearly, privacy legislation is not enough. The various privacy laws of European countries have not prevented the NSA from tapping into the servers of some of the biggest Internet companies in the world and from gaining access to the data of millions of citizens around the world. Yet, privacy legislation in India should be a basic prerequisite to ensure that data is not breached within India and by those who may potentially gain access to Indian national databases.

As a next- but immediate- step, the Indian government should demand answers from the NSA to the following questions:

  • What type of data is collected from India and which parties have access to it?

  • How long is such data retained for? Can the retention period be renewed and if so, for how long?

  • Is data collected on Indian internet users shared with third parties? If so, which third parties can gain access to this data and under what conditions? Is a judicial warrant required?

In addition to the above questions, the Indian government should also request all other information relating to Indians´ data collected through the PRISM programme, as well as proceed with a dialogue on the matter. Governments are obliged to protect their citizens from the abuse of their human rights, especially in cases when such abuse may occur from foreign agencies. Thus, the Indian government should ensure that the future secret collection of Indians´ data is prevented and that Internet companies are transparent and accountable in regards to who has access to their servers.

On an individual level, Indians can protect their data by using encryption, such as GPG encryption for their emails and OTR encryption for instant messaging. Tor is free software and an open network which enables online anonymity by bouncing communications around a distributed network of relays run by volunteers all around the world. Tor is originally short for “The Onion Router” and “onion routing” refers to the layers of encryption used. In particular, data is encrypted and re-encrypted multiple times and is sent to randomly selected Tor relays. Each relay decrypts a “layer” of encryption to reveal it only to the next relay in the circuit and the final relay decrypts the last “layer” of encryption. Essentially, Tor reduces the possibility of original data being understood in transit and conceals the routing of it.

To avoid surveillance, the use of HTTPS-Everywhere in the Tor Browser is recommended, as well as the use of combinations of additional software, such as TorBirdy and Enigmail, OTR and DiasporaTor hidden services are communication endpoints that are resistant to both metadata analysis and surveillance, which is why they are highly recommended in light of the NSA´s surveillance. An XMPP client that ships with an XMPP server and a Tor hidden service is a good example of how to avoid surveillance.

Protecting our data is more important now than ever. Why? Because global, indiscriminate, mass data collection is no longer a hypothesis: it´s a fact. And why is it vital to protect our data? Because if we don´t, we are ultimately sleepwalking into our control and oppression where basic human rights, such as freedom, would be a myth of the past.

 The principles formulated by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Privacy International on communication surveillance should be taken into consideration by governments and law enforcement agencies around the world. In short, these principles are:

  • Legality: Limitations to the right to privacy must be prescribed by law

  • Legitimate purpose: Access to communications or communications metadata should be restricted to authorised public authorities for investigative purposes and in pursuit of a legitimate purpose

  • Necessity: Access to communications or communications metadata by authorised public authorities should be restricted to strictly and demonstrably necessary cases

  • Adequacy: Public authorities should be restricted from adopting or implementing measures that allow access to communications or communications metadata that is not appropriate for fulfillment of the legitimate purpose

  • Competent authority: Authorities must be competent when making determinations relating to communications or communications metadata

  • Proportionality: Public authorities should only order the preservation and access to specifically identified, targeted communications or communications metadata on a case-by-case basis, under a specified legal basis

  • Due process: Governments must respect and guarantee an individual’s human rights, that may interference with such rights must be authorised in law, and that the lawful procedure that governs how the government can interfere with those rights is properly enumerated and available to the public

  • User notification: Service providers should notify a user that a public authority has requested his or her communications or communications metadata with enough time and information about the request so that a user may challenge the request

  • Transparency about use of government surveillance: The access capabilities of public authorities and the process for access should be prescribed by law and should be transparent to the public

  • Oversight: An independent oversight mechanism should be established to ensure transparency of lawful access requests

  • Integrity of communications and systems: Service providers are responsible for the secure transmission and retention of communications data or communications metadata

  • Safeguards for international cooperation: Mutual legal assistance processes between countries and how they are used should be clearly documented and open to the public

  • Safeguards against illegitimate access: Governments should ensure that authorities and organisations who initiate, or are complicit in, unnecessary, disproportionate or extra-legal interception or access are subject to sufficient and significant dissuasive penalties, including protection and rewards for whistleblowers, and that individuals affected by such activities are able to access avenues for redress

  • Cost of surveillance: The financial cost of providing access to user data should be borne by the public authority undertaking the investigation

Applying these above principles is a prerequisite, but may not be enough. Now is the time to resist unlawful and non-transparent surveillance. Now is the time for everyone to fight for their right to be free.

Is a world without freedom worth living in?

A version of this post was published on Centre for Internet & Society, India website

The Centre for Internet and Society is a non-profit research organization that works on policy issues relating to freedom of expression, privacy, accessibility for persons with disabilities, access to knowledge and IPR reform, and openness (including open government, FOSS, open standards, etc.), and engages in academic research on digital natives and digital humanities.