Home / Opinion / Online Views /  Privacy vs government vs media

With each new revelation, sometimes on a completely different plane, the issue of privacy vs government vs media gets more complicated. Even as the proposed central monitoring system (CMS) and the sanction it will have to monitor phone calls and text messages in addition to online activity was being debated last month, the revelations about the American National Security Agency’s PRISM programme came along, followed by more revelations of it being used for spying on foreign governments.

Member of Parliament from Kerala P. Rajeev, who takes up online freedom issues at the behest of activist groups, started an online petition at asking Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo and so on to disclose information on data of Indian citizens given to US security agencies. The debate then became—should Indians be more outraged over PRISM or over CMS?

And then earlier this week there were other revelations about offline activity which also raised concerns about what the government does with video footage it collects through CCTVs, ostensibly as a terrorism tracking measure. A newspaper reported that footage collected by the Delhi Metro Rail Corp. Ltd via CCTVs on its coaches had caught couples being intimate in deserted coaches and the footage had been sent to international porn sites. Delhi Metro disputed this, saying that its cameras don’t record sound nor are they static. It said the footage had been captured on mobile phones and wasn’t from CCTVs.

So much for communications minister Milind Deora’s assertion last month that data collected by the government for security purposes was absolutely non-tamperable within government databases. He was, of course, referring to phone and Internet data. But even so, being asked to repose faith in the government as a custodian of the data it collects suddenly becomes a laughable proposition.

Societies confronted with challenges of privacy need to have basic convictions on this issue. Deora, at his Google hangout in June, argued that the big thing about CMS would be that it would bypass mobile companies. “We are setting it up to precisely safeguard your privacy and protect our national security as a country...from a privacy standpoint, a mobile company can unlawfully intercept your conversation," he said. Deora was referring to the Nira Radia tapes which caused grief to Ratan Tata.

But what about the government personnel involved in the tracking? His contention was that the way the system was being designed, even the officer involved in the tracking would not have access to the conversations. So the individual would not have to be trusted, the technology would foreclose his ability to snoop.

On less high-tech systems like the Delhi Metro’s, there are no such safeguards. So first data or footage gets out, and then the media gets into the act. The privacy issue has two different institutions to contend with: government and its rogue personnel, and the media.

Increasingly, tabloid media as an institution has no convictions about citizen privacy either. There are occasions such as in the case of the Radia tapes and their monitoring of private conversations over a long period where public interest is cited as the reason for the media exposing the tapes. In the case of Delhi Metro footage, you could argue that this was shot in a public space and there was no privacy angle, but where was the lofty public interest in going to town with it, interminably?

Television’s self-regulatory bodies need to ask their member channels to quit behaving like gleeful adolescents grabbing at sensational scraps to garner their ratings. Why sound outraged about the alleged misuse of CCTV footage when you have no qualms about airing this at prime time? NewsX on 9 June took the cake, attempting to intellectualize the issue even as it kept showing the pictures for the duration of an entire panel discussion. Hindi news channels were less complicated—they just happily lived off the day’s big prime time find.

On PRISM and CMS, there has been abundant television and print coverage, but far more educating by the media needs to be done on highly technical issues. Presuming they understand it themselves. Will CMS be blanket surveillance or targeted surveillance? What are the implications of this system making it possible to collect metadata “in a way and at a scale that was not possible before", as one Internet democracy activist puts it?

Government monitoring can be challenged in court on grounds of privacy by civil liberties groups only when there is more certainty about what it will do. In June, the American Civil Liberties Union and three other US human rights groups filed a case in a US district court, challenging the government’s collection of metadata. They said it was akin to snatching every American’s address book. At the very least, CMS being put in place before privacy laws are passed, can be contested.

Sevanti Ninan is a media critic, author and editor of the media watch website She examines the larger issues related to the media in a fortnightly column.

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