Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Right to Privacy

Ratan Tata has filed a plaint in court stating that his right to privacy has been violated. While the case itself has huge elements of voyeurism to keep us engaged and wanting to hear more, privacy be damned, privacy as an issue needs to be debated. We are now in an age where almost everything we do is, or can be recorded somewhere with severe possibilities of misuse.


Several governments of the world are desperately trying to put Julian Assange behind bars on what appears to be trumped-up rape charges – apparently he continued to have sex with one lady when the condom fell off, and had sex with another when she was asleep!  We all know what the real issue is. Wikileaks has turned the same guns that governments use (that of illegal tapping and recording) against them, and in a most public way.


Our cellphone numbers are already being hawked. Our bank account details are compromised. Credit card databases are being mined for information. Our browsing habits are being tracked by cookies which build personal profiles based on our browsing patterns. Our location at all times is traceable within a few square kilometers since we carry in our pockets a location-locator-cum-broadcaster called a cellphone. Our spending details  are part of easily accessible online databases. Income tax returns are being filed online now; what's the bet it won't be sold?


Coupled with this is the power of governments to authorize phone tapping, interception of emails, etc., all of which is invariably done in the interests of "national security". After 9/11 it is not even allowed to voice opposition to things that are done in the name of safety and security. There are paper laws in place to regulate these things, sometimes not even that, but none of us believes that any procedures are being adhered to. When big brother wants to snoop, big brother gets his way.


Google is photographing every inch of the earth every few hours, and storing it somewhere in retrievable form.  They have vehicles trawling the streets taking photographs and updating street scenes all the time. More and more vehicles are being embedded with GPS trackers. The movements of prisoners are being monitored by implanting sub-dermal transmitters.


Arab women are gifting pens to their husbands that have hidden cameras in them. And using the evidence to confront  their husbands with proof of their infidelity. If you or I want to spy on someone it is very easy to hire a detective agency to start recording every movement of the person.


We instinctively look over our shoulders to see if we are being followed.  Now we don't know where to look.


The justification offered sometimes for some of the tapping that is legal is national security. But once data is stored in digital form, it is almost impossible to prevent it from escaping. It is so easy to copy and transmit. As we see in the case of the Radia tapes, once it is out in the public domain, the spread is viral. On a smaller matter not of national concern, a good example is the MMS on the DPS school incident about five or six years back.


In such a scenario it becomes essential for us to be able to protect our privacy with all means at our disposal. Like encrypting our messages and phone calls. Having secure private networks. Having virtual and physical safeguards around all data. This is not always possible. How do you guard your credit card, tax returns, and other financial data since they reside in other databases? Do we really want to activate the privacy settings in facebook to the full extent – most of us don't even know how.


However, where it is possible it is resisted – by big brother, of course. The law prescribes strict "know your customer" norms for both opening bank accounts, and obtaining new cellphone connections.  Since the encryption algorithm on the blackberry is impossible to crack, the government wants the servers to be located locally with full access to people's messages. The US is arm-twisting the Swiss to disgorge details of bank accounts. Most transactions in the world are done through Visa or Mastercard settlement systems – the US government I bet has full access to them.  


Big brother wants to know everything about us, when he pleases, how he pleases. But he becomes very displeased if information in his possession is leaked out. Imagine a state where the government knows and controls every aspect of your life; not a moment is private;, and access to all modern privileges is guarded by information gateways through which you have to pass.  In such a situation it becomes impossible for the individual or even a group to resist the might of the state. And the might of the state can easily turn from benign, to assertive, to authoritarian, to dictatorial, to brutal. It depends on the people who control it after all. More than that, it will not only be the state but several agencies who will know all about you and will start using that information. That is more harmful. In both cases, the damage caused is insidious and can hardly be felt.


When mighty kings used to control the land, the maximum damage to them was sometimes caused by guerrilla groups who struck from unexpected directions and vanished without trace. Wikileaks reminds me of that. When technology is being used by big brother to spy on us, why not the same technology be used to expose him?  Big brother will of course resist. Julian Assange could be killed in a mysterious accident, or could get a long jail term for crossing the street when the red light was on. But the sources of leaks can be many. How can you stop them all?


The same technology that is coming to the aid of governments now will be their bugbear. It is in the nature of things that in the strength of everything lies the seeds for its own demise.


After Wikileaks and Radia, people will be more careful in guarding their privacy – there will  be new tools available to enable that, big brother will use his strength to prevent that… the story will go on. There is an inherent justice in things that upset the balance of power.  From that angle, whatever is happening is for the good.


In the meanwhile, I am sure Ratan Tata has started being more guarded in his phone calls!

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