Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Living in '1984'

Scientists call it the 'Observer Effect'. It refers to the changes in a phenomenon caused merely by observing it. One good example of the Observer Effect in action is a thermometer. It absorbs heat from the air, causing the mercury in the tube to expand and tell us the temperature. However, by giving up some of its heat to the mercury, the air itself gets cooler - even if it's just by an infinitesimally small amount.

When you apply the Observer Effect to people, the changes are quite dramatic. Remember how we'd automatically straighten up and pipe down when the teacher walked into class? Notice how the office quietens when the boss walks in? You may not have been doing anything wrong, but your behaviour, your demeanour, your natural self changes.

Until this June, the world assumed only terrorists were being watched by the NSA. Today, thanks to Edward Snowden, we know the NSA snoops on every single piece of electronic communication of almost every person on the planet. Emails sent via Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail are scanned. Phone conversations are monitored either through sweetheart deals with telecom companies around the world or by tapping directly into telephone exchanges and undersea cables. Text messages and faxes, IM chats and video calls are intercepted and scanned for suspicious content.

We're told this will keep us safe from terror attacks; that everyone needs to be watched because no one knows who the real terrorists are. That's why the State now treats all of us as potential terrorists.

 But at least the US has safeguards. We're told the Executive branch has designed the software with protocols to hunt only for potential terrorist activity. And in case the software fails, the US Legislature and Judiciary are there for backup. Encouragingly, a small group of US legislators is pushing for even more safeguards for this system.

That is the US. India too, is developing its own version of total surveillance called the 'Central Monitoring System', but our safeguards don't even come close. They are largely the prerogative of a single individual in the government - the Home Secretary. This is an office that's constantly wooed by promotions and post-retirement benefits or dreaded 'transfer postings'. Are we to assume our privacy is safe in the face of such influences?
 
What's worse is that despite some outcry against CMS, the government has so far not said one word about what privacy protections will be built into the system. It gets worse. In the US, the NSA and other intelligence agencies were created by law and are accountable to the Legislature and Judiciary for excesses or abuses. In India, the intelligence agencies that will operate CMS are accountable only to the Executive. They do no have to face Parliament or the Courts if they go beyond their mandate.

Let's go back to the Observer Effect. Remember how human beings changed their behaviour when they know they're being watched? Under CMS, we will live in a society where our most private conversations are no longer private. We must always remember that this system will operate in a country where people were arrested or harassed for drawing cartoons about politicians, for saying they don't like when a city is shut down following the death of a politician, and for writing books or creating art that offends others.

These are all crimes in a country where the social contract - our Constitution - declared in no uncertain terms that the State would "secure to all its citizens: liberty, of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship..." CMS rips apart the preamble of our Constitution.

Under CMS, imagine phone conversations between you and your wife, if you know someone is listening in. Imagine emails between you and your boss about a contract where the competitor is a government MP's firm. Imagine internet chats between you and friends where you discuss your strong dislike of a certain minister.

This is an excerpt from a Twitter conversation I had this morning with Nitin Pai of the Takshashila Institution. It is was led to this blog post. You can read the rest of it here.

Will your behaviour change under such total surveillance? Will you ever communicate naturally with friends and family again? Will you feel more free to express yourself?

If the answer is no, we need to start an open, robust debate about where we draw lines between privacy and security. Our social contract is gradually being redefined to deprive us of the same liberties our grandparents' generation fought long and hard to earn for us. If we do nothing to protect them, we will lose these liberties and in doing so, we will lose a large part of individuality.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Be respectful to others here or your comment will be deleted.