Friday, June 24, 2011

Redefining Privacy

Nandan Nilekani announced yesterday the throwing open of the Aadhaar platform for development of third party apps. He wants to do an Apple or Android – create a bouquet of services, tapping into the creativity of thousands of skilled developers. Where there is a need, an application will emerge, motivated either by profit or social service considerations.
People are talking about creating secure payment gateways for e-commerce to accept payments from an Aadhaar verified source, scanning and uploading of verified documents with an Aadhaar tag, so that the person need not carry the document again – the possibilities are endless. All this is possible because we are able to identify and tag a person with accuracy.
Once every person in the world is identified, and every object in the world is tagged, and every interaction between these persons and objects has been coded or given an identity in code, then every transaction in the world can in theory be trapped, with myriad ways of search to locate them online.  
Since most of our interactions with the world are through gateways which pass through computers – think banking, credit card payments, office swipe card systems, cctv’s in malls and buildings - our entire lives are being uploaded into digital databases. Couple this with better search techniques – Facebook has just rolled out a technology where you can be identified based on features in photos that are uploaded; billboards can recognize you in the crowd as you walk past, and flash ads targeted at you; apart from your UID your biometric data like shape of your nose and length of your ears will exist in computer databases which will automatically identify you and tag you wherever you go. The mobile phone you carry with you constantly broadcasts your location down to the nearest 500 meters which can be “geo-tagged” and kept on record for posterity. And the latest snooping devices are unbelievably effective, cheap and difficult to find. Any object in your house or office can have a hidden camera and an attached microphone – these devices can now be bought over the internet starting at Rs.500 onwards.
All the data generated from all the above will be stored in databases. There will of course be people with access to these databases, or rather persons with access to software that will have the capability to hunt you out in all this data, and present your entire life’s story in one neatly compiled digital docket, either to people who have the power to access them like the government, or to people who are willing to pay for them. The trend is only helped by social networking sites where your friends post yesterday night’s party photos with you tagged on them.
So what happens to privacy? They say that nothing that you do online is private any more. We should extend that statement to say that everything that you do offline can be stored online, and nothing that exists online is private.
So then, what happens to privacy? We have to get used to a new world where there is no such thing as privacy, at least the way we understand and define it in today’s world. The way we look at it, our personal lives are off limits to our colleagues, what we do at work should be of no concern to those at home, our political views, religious views, groups that we are part of, whom we hang out with, and what we choose to do with our lives, are our business alone, and ours to divulge or not divulge depending on who are dealing with. That definition needs to be relooked at.
In several primitive societies, the concept of privacy is very rudimentary. Apart from the acts of defecation and procreation, very little is private in these societies. Extend that to much more evolved societies like our villages, and there is a little more privacy, but nowhere near what urban westernized notions of privacy have come to mean. Throughout human history, the norms of what is considered private have evolved depending on the times, the technology and the culture.
We are all adapting fast to the new online world. This new world is profoundly changing the way we live and throwing up newer possibilities and concerns in the way humans interact, and our notions of privacy have to change accordingly. A lot of things we now consider private will no longer be so.  Along with the redefinition of what privacy means, we will have to change our cultural and moral rules and taboos. Human nature will perhaps continue to be the same, but morality and culture depend a lot on projection where people like to project images that are different from what they are. As the projection changes, the rules need to evolve to keep pace – and along with that, our mindsets, behaviors, and way of living as well.
And at the pace things are changing, we should be prepared to do a lot of this in our lifetimes. We are headed for interesting times!

Monday, June 13, 2011

On godmen and marketing

Baba Ramdev blew it. He had (of course still has) a huge fan following; thousands of people follow him, yearn to be in his presence, listen to his sermons, bask in his shadow, or see him on TV. He with the most famous stomach in India then went and did something stupid. He decided to take on the politicians.


He declared that black money is bad, and needs to be brought back into the country. So far so good. Motherhood statements like this are excellent and no one dares counter them. Vague demands of "bringing back" black money, which has no fixed place of residence and cannot be identified, are excellent feel-good topics that make the conscience glow.  There is an innate need in all of us to feel morally superior – this is mostly satisfied by making grandiose uplifting statements of the moralistic or religious kind, and basking in the resultant glow.


He with the huge following thought he could do a Anna Hazare. What he forgot is that Anna is a social worker, not a godman (or yoga guru as the case may be); has a huge following but it is not being leveraged for money or fame; has not built a huge business empire which is vulnerable; and has a moral standing that the Baba, even with all his millions shouting his fervent praises, cannot match.


He perhaps thought he has reached the stature of a Satya Sai Baba or a Sri Sri. He has a long way to go before he gets anywhere close. He does not attract the devotion of his followers the way the other two do. Also, Ramdev's communication is too direct, too controversial, and too worldly – he is not even close in spiritual messaging to these other two gentlemen, one of whom is of course now deceased.


His meteoric rise (counted from an already high place which he occupied) and inglorious fall, all happened within a couple of weeks. He had the ministers of the UPA government fawning on him, visiting him at the airport – him who was a common citizen come to play a charade of protest – and the whole nation starting with the PM and Madam his leader, focused on him alone. He made some promises to the bigwigs he was negotiating with, then went back on his word. He decided to up the stakes in spite of his private assurances to them to the contrary. That pissed them off. It is dangerous to piss off such powerful people. They sent their armies in, obviously. He then ran away wearing women's clothes! That was the most stupid thing to have done – he should have stood there and demanded to get arrested. Whether he got arrested or got hit with a lathi, his stature as counted in martyrdom points, would have gone up several notches.

Then Baba Flat Stomach, who seems to be very ignorant on how to deal with the media, even though he owes his rise to them, went and said something to the effect that he would raise an army! What he said was bad enough, but the way it was twisted by his enemies-in-waiting made it sound diabolical. What he said sounded more like rhetoric, but people in high places with media attention on them need to be very careful of what they say. Which is why when any politician or great leader decides to speak "extempore", their close advisors tremble in fear. They the enemies, made sure that they denounced this as a plot by a deranged maniac to destabilize the nation by encouraging an armed uprising.


The Baba who should have stuck to his asanas, announced at the same time that he would go on a hunger strike. Self mortification as a ploy works only when the opponent is receptive, has a sense of guilt, has a lot to lose in case the mortifier ends up in the mortuary, and has not been recently very pissed off with the person in question. In short, given the sequence of recent events, the timing was all wrong.


He went on a fast. No one listened. He was shifted to hospital and reports emerged of his health deteriorating. No one heard. Amidst all this, no one was in any doubt that he would not die of hunger.  When an Anna Hazare declares a fast unto death, you cringe when you think about it because you know that the probability of his continuing the fast unto death or near to it in any case, is high. In the Baba's case, he had too many worldly attachments  including his ever-expanding business empire for him to lose it all by dying. That would be a clear waste, and the public saw it. So no one took his "unto death" seriously.  On the contrary, the government decided that this was a good time to take some resources away from investigating the 2G and Commonwealth Games Scams, and divert them to investigating the Baba's burgeoning business empire. They are not even subtle nowadays when they use the CBI and allied agencies to meet their own ends – no one thinks Kanimozhi would be in jail today if the DMK had won in Tamil Nadu – but that is another story, another track.


His advisors had to do some serious background work to prevail upon another guru, "his senior", to prevail upon the by now hungry Baba to break his fast. Sri Sri landed up and admonished his junior. The precise admonishments are not known but I guess it would have been something like "Don't be stupid – learn from me. Eat well, sleep well, give a lot of good advice, breathe deeply, but never paint yourself in a corner. Since you have just managed to do that, you stupid oaf, swallow your pride and some orange juice, and break your fast. Then come to my ashram in Bangalore, be my guest for a month, and I will teach you the art of Darshan (how to motivate followers), Sudarshan (as in Kriya) and Politician (how to make them run in circles around you)." And so it happened.  The Baba has retreated, broken his fast, and hopefully will go back to doing Nauli or Uddiyana Bandha for a while.


Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Politics of Corruption

Everyone agrees that corruption is bad and that it needs to be rooted out. Half the people who do so are corrupt themselves, and are like the thieves who join the crowd singing devotional songs. The other half are sincere, but cannot seem to agree on the means to do so.


A significant proportion of the sincere half has rallied in support of the current movement sweeping the country, which reached a mass movement status thanks to Anna Hazare. Anna himself is a person who has led a very simple life, who was a driver in the Army before he went on to transform Ralegan Siddhi village and has been conferred the Padma Shri and the Padma Bhushan. His personal possessions are few, and he does not seem to be harboring any political ambitions. This gives him a moral authority that few can match.


However, it is debatable whether the cure proposed by Anna is in the long run going to be any better than the disease. His proposal of having a superordinate body with power to investigate and hand out punishments, seems to be an immediate way out of our current mess, where we have lost all faith in the existing institutions. People yearn for a dictatorship when law and order totally breaks down and there is extreme hardship caused by what is perceived as lack of decisive leadership. The yearning for a Lokpal with extensive powers seems similar to that. What about the current institutions? The CBI is considered the handmaiden of the government in power, the higher courts have  been of late tainted with accusations of impropriety against judges, the lower courts have never been perceived to be totally honest, the political class is expected to make money by dishonest means, the administration is seen to be suborned to the will of their corrupt masters the politicians, and so on the list goes at every level of governance and administration. With this kind of erosion of faith in institutions, it is understandable that people yearn for a super-body.  On a little reflection it will become apparent that the age-old question is coming back to haunt us: "Who will guard the guardians"? The Lokpal, if and when it comes into being, is also going to be made up of people – who will select them, on what basis, and how will we ensure that they use their powers with fairness and transparency?


The entry of Baba Ramdev only complicates matters further. He is a yoga guru who has built up a huge following, not least due to the power of TV and media. He runs a flourishing business empire that he has built from scratch. He has shown a tendency to enter into controversial areas, and air his strongly held, but hardly what you may term unbiased, views. It is good that he is using his vast credibility to crusade for such a noble cause, but where this will ultimately lead is anyone's guess. His main demand seems to be to bring black money back into the country. It is a demand that resonates well, but black money is not some identifiable dinosaur roaming in the wild, where all you need to do is go and catch it. With his antics, he might actually end up muddying the waters more, creating confusion and diverting the debate, which might end up suiting a certain section of people quite well.


What then are the solutions? Unfortunately that is not such an easy question to answer. We already have several laws and governing institutions in place. What we need to think about is how to strengthen these institutions by ensuring sound governance and non-interference. We should  look at a thorough revision of existing laws to give them more teeth, and introducing new laws where there are gaps. We should look at strengthening the ideas of ethics, morality and honesty in our education and public debates – there is too much emphasis given to "hard" aspects that can be measured, and lesser emphasis on these softer issues nowadays. Above all, we need to introduce more transparency in all areas of public governance right from the Village Panchayat upwards – sunlight is always the best disinfectant. Transparency and dissemination of information have become more and more easy in the modern world thanks to technology and the internet. Nothing radical in these suggestions, and nothing original – but perhaps that is the way to go. It is also not an easy journey – the battle against corruption is a constant struggle not very different from the mythological battles between the Devas and the Asuras.



What is undeniable is that there is a strong undercurrent of dissatisfaction and people are restive and want change. Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev, and others who have risen in their support, are helping to bring the issue to the fore, and strengthening the voices demanding change. Let us hope that we will have changes that are principled, practical and capable of lasting.