Last week, Bloomberg news reported that sales of George Orwell’s novel 1984, featuring a futuristic totalitarian state jumped on the Amazon.com website following reports of a classified programme that lets the US government collect personal data.
The Washington Post and The Guardian had reported earlier that a top-secret US electronic surveillance programme allows the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to access data from audio and video chats, photographs, emails, documents and connection logs from the biggest US Internet companies.
All that sounds eerily similar to Orwell’s novel that portrays a dystopian society where individuals are monitored by television screens everywhere and overseen by a leader called Big Brother. The whistleblower, Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor, who revealed the programme to The Guardian, acknowledged that his life would change completely as a consequence but said in justification, “I’m willing to sacrifice all of that because I can’t in good conscience allow the US government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.”
From the point of view of privacy, the world has changed dramatically since the events of 9/11.
As every traveller knows, travel has gone from being an enjoyable experience to a nightmarish one with identity checks, document requirements and frequent security scans. We are now photographed in almost every public place in major cities around the world. There are now millions of cameras in malls, airports, train stations, traffic junctions and even the public parks in New York, London, Chicago, Sydney, Shanghai, New Delhi and Bangalore.
After the recent bombings at the Boston Marathon, authorities had to scan through hours of footage from government surveillance cameras, private security cameras and smart phone captures of the public. They then used facial recognition software to parse the mountain of video data and release the pictures of two suspects within days of the bombings.
When you retreat from a public place and turn on your computer or smartphone, you are being tracked again. The latest revelations about widespread monitoring of the Internet usage, emails and photos combined with information about Global Positioning System (GPS) locations and server IDs map you to anyone who cares to look carefully. There is a raging debate in the West about the extent of surveillance and the cost-benefit of being observed most of the time. There is widespread support for public surveillance as of now, but snooping on private behaviour on the Internet is likely to inflame passions.
As with everything else, the picture in India is much more complex. Terrorism concerns, privacy issues and identity debates are intertwined.
India is, at once, at least three countries. India A is a middle-income country with educated citizens who have global mobility, upward trajectories and (almost) western concerns. India A’s citizens are worried about being captured on footage and about being tracked online. India B is an aspiring, middle-class country. They are less worried about privacy and more about getting ahead. If the trains and buses run on time as a result of a thousand cameras, they are happy to live with it. India C is a poor country. India C’s citizens are not bothered about privacy, online or offline, because they have nothing to loose. They are desperately trying to access the ramp of the mainstream highway. They seek a basic identity, so that they can begin as individual citizens to see some benefit of a growing economy.
Navigating the three Indias from the point of privacy is no simple task. Although the constitution does not contain an explicit reference to a right to privacy, this right has been read into it by the Supreme Court as a component of two fundamental rights: the right to freedom under Article 19 and the right to life and personal liberty under Article 21. In the absence of constitutional protection against search and seizure (similar to the fourth amendment in the US), India has flirted with several draconian provisions in law, especially anti-terrorism laws.
At the same time, India has embarked on a massive biometric identification project to provide basic identity, and with it, access to the services of the state. India is taking its first steps towards privacy regulation with a draft law based on former justice A.P. Shah’s expert group report on privacy and data protection. Rigid anti-privacy laws based on the West at this time are likely to tie India’s hands at precisely the moment when much of its citizens (India C) need a path ahead. Balancing the diverse needs of all citizens will require debate, wisdom and the willingness to tread a unique Indian path.
PS: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety,” said Benjamin Franklin. “Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear,” said George Orwell.
Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org
To read Narayan Ramachandran’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/avisiblehand- -