In Times of Dystopian Reality: Big Brother is Watching

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Why does a permissible climate for invasive surveillance, cloaked in secrecy, today thrive in India?

“By comparison with that existing today, all the tyrannies of the past were halfhearted and inefficient part of the reason for this was that in the past no government had the power to keep its citizens under constant surveillance.”

-George Orwell, 1984

Orwell’s dystopian novel about a surveillance state with sophisticated tools warned us about a future in which governments would use digital repression to fully control their citizens. The dangers that tyrannical ambitions in a technically advanced era can pose to the people of the world could not be fully grasped by Orwell. There was just the authoritarian, all-pervasive Big Brother and the party before whom everyone else was subservient and transparent. 

The news about the leak of personal data, including names, phone numbers, addresses, passport details with Aadhar biometrics, of over 800 million Indians reaching the dark web warns of a graver challenge that ambitions of authoritarian regimes trying to suppress their citizens digitally can posit. The source of the leak is the Indian Council for Medical Research. For years, experts have pointed out to the dangers of such centralized data giving the state disproportionate and unchecked power to extract and utilise private information, and also warned of possible leaks. Yet, such wisdom has been brushed aside. India’s bid to collate personal data and create a centralised pool is, thus, not only turning India into a surveillance state but also breaking down people into tiny fragments of data that is up for grabs by the greed driven corporates and the underworld. 

In an age of big data, technology has enabled the government to monitor the lives of citizens easily and at diminishing costs. Digital technology makes the permissibility of surveillance wider, covering a larger number of people, and deeper with more invasive methods. The recent Apple alerts, received by opposition leaders, journalists and other critics of the government, are yet another pointer in this direction. Earlier Pegasus, the NSO spyware with extremely invasive technology, was used on scores of Indians. 

Surveillance in India is not new. It existed in the times of manual snooping and phone tapping. It was often politically motivated earlier. It is even more politically motivated now under a regime that is intolerant to any dissent. 

Why does a permissible climate for invasive surveillance, cloaked in secrecy, today thrive in India? 

Despite the Puttuswamy verdict, which held that the right to privacy was an intrinsic part of the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21 and as a part of the freedoms guaranteed by Part III of the Constitution, the statutory pre-conditions for surveillance are ambiguously worded, allowing the government ample scope to justify its legality. The decision to surveil any person or groups is vested in the arbitrary discretion of the executive without any adequate parliamentary or judicial oversight. There are lawful interception monitoring systems that allow the government to snoop in on its 1.4 billion citizens.  

A recent report in the Financial Times pointed out about the peculiarities of the Indian surveillance system and stated that “it openly requires telecom companies to install surveillance equipment at subsea cable landing stations and data centres that is approved by the government as a condition of operation.”

This legality can be traced back to the pre-Narendra Modi regime. In 2009, the Indian government envisioned the Central Monitoring System, in response to the Mumbai 2008 terror attacks. The policy was implemented in 2011, giving all security related agencies of India access and power to monitor all voice calls, SMS and MMS, fax communications on landlines, CDMA, video calls, GSM and 3G networks.

By adding new IT related laws to the kitty of existing ones, a more invasive eco-system is being legally created under the present Narendra Modi regime which has patently substituted accountability with its arrogance.

In contrast to the vagueness of the laws which give broad sweeping powers to the government, any efforts to introduce a measure of accountability and transparency are brutally or clandestinely pushed back. When the Pegasus revelations came to the surface, the Supreme Court set up a technical committee to investigate the Pegasus project report. The committee concluded its investigation a year later but the court never made the findings of the report public. 

Interestingly, Minister for Telecom and Electronics and IT, Ashwini Vaishnaw, in response to the spyware alerts from Apple, while claiming that an investigation has been already ordered, invoked the Pegasus inquiry and said, “we conducted a proper investigation that was also supervised by the judiciary… nothing came out of that”. What he omitted out was the Supreme Court’s observations that the Indian authorities did not cooperate with the technical committee’s investigations. What he also conveniently skirted was that the findings of the report was never made public.

The government cannot evade responsibility. The Apple alert specifically warned of spyware attack by “a state”. After the Pegasus revelations, Israel based NSO had also admitted that the company’s clients strictly included government agencies. In both cases, there is evidence of involvement at the state-level. That the targets in both cases were primarily opposition leaders, civil society activists and journalists known for criticising the government can hardly be a coincidence. As an aside, if the Indian government or any of its agencies and functionaries are not behind it, it ought to be another unknown state that is trying to snoop down on Indian citizens. Any other responsible government should have been riled about such transgression of its sovereignty. This one chooses to maintain silence and invests in an eco-system of co-opted media to either defend it with disinformation and fake news or divert public attention. 

Surveillance revelations in the past would spark nation-wide outrage. Not so long ago in 2011, when former president, Pranab Mukherjee, was India’s finance minister, he had complained of snooping allegedly at the behest of his political adversary in the same government. In the same year, in another notorious case of surveillance, recordings were leaked to the media corporate lobbyist Nira Radia’s conversations with senior politicians, journalists and business leaders and there was a nation-wide uproar. 

More than a decade later, when the technology is becoming more invasive and the tyrannical ambitions of the government deepening, there is neither any public outrage, nor any accountability from the dominant media. One reason could be the inability to understand the perils surveillance poses to democracies, societies and individuals, particularly when we are dealing with a technology that is taking massive strides and revolutionizing at lightning speed. In the pre-digital area, Michael Foucault had warned that even if surveillance is discontinuous in its actions, “it is permanent in its effects”. The effects in today’s world are not just permanent but also enormously destructive.