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Growing Surveillance: SAFEGUARDING PRIVCAY CRITICAL, By Syed Ali Mujtaba, 31 Dec, 2013 Print E-mail

Open Forum

New Delhi, 31 December 2013

Growing Surveillance


By Syed Ali Mujtaba


The Union Cabinet’s decision to set up a Commission of Inquiry into the alleged snooping by the Gujarat Police in 2009 on a young woman architect has triggered a debate over surveillance of individual and also raised moral, ethical and legal questions surrounding it.


The Commission shall look into the “physical/electronic surveillance” in Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Delhi that has taken place “allegedly without authorization” and is expected to submit a report to the Government in three months.


The snooping issue came into focus after two investigative news portals –the Cobrapost and Gulail - claimed that then Gujarat Home Minister Amit Shah had ordered the illegal surveillance of the lady at the behest of Chief Minister Narender Modi for being close to an IAS officer who had a grudge against him. Recently, Gulail.com released a set of 39 new tapes, purportedly of telephonic conversations which, it said, showed that the alleged illegal surveillance occurred even beyond Gujarat.


Importantly, this incident has come to lime light close on the heels of BJP leader Arun Jaitley's accusation against the Centre that his phone was allegedly tapped and that he demanded immediate action against individuals reportedly trying to access his call detail records CDRs etc.

However, these two incidents are just a tip of the iceberg on the issue of surveillance that has global connotations in today’s times.


Surveillance is basically the monitoring of behavior, activities, or information, usually of people for the purpose of influencing, managing, directing, or protecting them. The effects of surveillance have both positive as well as negative aspects. It is very useful to governments and law enforcement agencies to maintain social control, recognize and monitor threats, and prevent criminal activity.


On the other hand, it severely impacts the privacy and freedom of an individual. Many civil rights and privacy groups have expressed concern that by allowing surveillance of citizens we may end up in a mass surveillance society, with extremely limited personal freedom. Close watch on communications is ubiquitous, and it severely undermines citizens’ ability to enjoy a private life, freely express and enjoy the fundamental human rights. Worse, these days there are many ways of conducting surveillance.


Computer surveillance involves the monitoring of data and traffic on the Internet. Google, the world's most popular search engine scans the content of emails of users of its Gmail web mail service, to create targeted advertising based on what people are talking about in their personal Emails. This definitely impinges on private affairs of users and instills moral, ethical and legal insecurity as it violates the right to privacy, undeniably a basic human right.


The official and unofficial tapping of telephone lines too is widespread. Mobile phones are also commonly used to collect location data. The geographical location of a cell phone that a person is carrying can be easily determined even when the phone is not in use. This can be done, using a technique known as multilateration, to calculate the difference in time for a signal to travel from the cell phone to each of the several cell towers near the owner of the phone. The legality of such techniques of surveillance has too been questioned.


Then there are the video cameras, which are used to keep a close watch with the purpose of observing a particular area. The development of centralized networks of CCTV cameras watching public areas, linked to computer databases of people’s pictures and identity are able to track people’s movements, and identify whom they have been with. This too has come into the focus of civil rights’ groups which argue that while security and safety is an issue the cameras impact civil liberties.


Another common form of surveillance is to create maps of social networks based on data from social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter etc. It is from such social network sites that personal interests, friendships and affiliations, beliefs, activities and thoughts are extracted out by those indulging in acts of surveillance. Again, each of these acts threatens both an individual’s freedom of expression and the right to maintain a private life and interaction.


Apparently, the declining costs of technology and data storage have created incentives for conducting a close watch. New technologies have been adopted and surveillance techniques have proliferated, threatening to blur the line of demarcation between private and public spheres. Individuals are no longer even able to know that they have been subjected to a close watch.


Edward Joseph Snowden, an American computer specialist, a former Central Intelligence Agency employee, and former National Security Agency contractor disclosed classified NSA documents to several media outlets, initiating the NSA leaks, which reveal operational details of a global surveillance apparatus operated by the United States working with its Five Eyes partners. According to Snowden, his ‘sole motive’ for leaking the documents was “to inform the public that what is being done in their name is done against them.”


There has been growing concern that the society is moving towards a state of mass surveillance with severely limited personal, social, political freedoms. Some point to the blurring of lines between public and private places, and the privatization of places traditionally seen as public (such as shopping malls and industrial parks) as illustrating the increasing legality of collecting personal information.


In addition to its obvious function of identifying and capturing individuals who are committing undesirable acts, surveillance also functions to create in everyone a nagging feeling of always being watched, so that they end up self-policing. This allows the State to control the populace without having to resort to physical force, which is also disturbing. Numerous civil rights groups and privacy groups are opposing such surveillance.


Generally, legislation has not kept pace with the changes in technology, creating gaps that deprive individuals of protection and allow for the extra-legal use of surveillance. It is therefore imperative that legal safeguards need to be rolled out to check such unethical practices of surveillance by the Government or any other organization. In such legislation the centrality of the right to privacy to democratic principles and the free flow of speech and ideas must be emphasized.


Privacy and free expression go hand in hand, each an essential prerequisite to the enjoyment of the other. To freely form and impart ones political, religious or ethnical beliefs one needs an autonomous, private space free from interference, from the government, private sector or other citizens. There can be no compromise.----INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)


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