India’s position on NSA spying is ludicrous: Roy Singham

Published Nov 18, 2013, 2:31 pm IST
Updated Mar 18, 2019, 6:55 pm IST
Roy Singham, the founder-chairman of ThoughtWorks, in an exclusive interview with DC.

Roy Singham, the founder-chairman of ThoughtWorks, was never your regular software guy. Now, as he approaches 60, though, his thoughts have grown beyond just revolutionising software creation with the Agile methodology, of which he is the biggest proponent.

In an interview with S. Raghotham, Singham’s thought continuum spans across the need to reorder the Internet to protect citizens’ fundamental rights from governments and corporate monopolies, preserve alternative narratives, protect whistleblowers, to fostering Frugal Innovation, changing the direction of the Indian tech sector, and even the need to slow down the technology juggernaut and think where the human race is headed. Excerpts:


You are a strong advocate of open sourcing, global regulation and transparency of the Internet.

The challenge we have today is that the Internet is highly monopolised. In the US, 75 per cent of the page views are controlled by 10 companies. When the Internet started, we had assumed that it would be democratic and it would increase the number of sources, so that there would be more equal access, and equal production. Equal access is happening, but equal production is not. So you have a concentration of content creation and content providers, which is dangerous for innovation and content creation.

For example, the way the indexed searches work on Google, it pre-selects based on your previous selections and what others have done before you. So (due to) the fact that originally many modern ideas were created mainly by Europeans, an African or Indian view would not be seen. So, we have to rethink the structure, the architecture of the Internet.

Read here: India made an average 15 user data requests a day to Google

We also need to redefine it as a peer-to-peer encrypted network where the privacy and security of individuals, companies and organisations are protected against governments and against others. In that sense, the original design of the Internet, while it got us this far, is inadequate. Given the revelations of Edward Snowden, and such strong connections between the NSA and companies like Google and Microsoft, that should be evident to everyone in the world.

You now have an economically monopolised industry, and a state-monopolised industry, where one country – the US -- has explicit control over all these large-scale providers, the FATMAGS -- Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Microsoft, Apple, Google and Salesforce -- these large Internet companies that control the majority of content in the world.

I believe we have to switch to a situation where encryption is not the exception, but the norm. Then, we need to increase the encryption, which would make it difficult for both the Indian and US governments to spy on their populations. Privacy is a fundamental right of the citizen.

The problem with the regulation of the Internet is, who does the regulation? Because the Internet is a global phenomenon, in theory, it ought to be globally regulated, and it cannot be left to the laws of individual countries. As citizens of the world, we should be demanding that the UN should be the regulator of the Internet. Now, do I really think that the UN is going to take on these kinds of complicated things? No. But then, who is speaking for the citizens?

While there is much concern in Europe, and Brazil, over the Snowden revelations, the Indian government doesn’t exactly look worried.

The position of many governments is, frankly, embarrassing, and India is the most embarrassing of all. A country that was known in the 1940s and 50s for defending the rights of the peoples of the world, one of the first countries to recognise the struggle against Apartheid, was the first country to deny Snowden asylum. That’s just shocking.

And then for your foreign minister (Salman Khurshid) to claim that the meta-data that is being collected is not spying, is just ludicrous! Six billion pieces of information were captured by the Americans on Indian citizens in one month. Six billion. That’s nearly (information on) the whole population. Who is kidding whom?

I spoke at the India International Centre in Delhi recently. I was just shocked at the lack of awareness among Indian policymakers on these issues!

Give us a sense of the dangers involved

The level of surveillance is huge, the statement of the CIO of the CIA is, ‘we will control every human interaction in history’. At the datacenter they have built in Utah, they can store yottabytes of data, which is all of the data of all of the communications in the next 100 years.

This means, from the time a child gets its first device – and let’s face it, soon children will have devices by the time they are five or six -- every keystroke, every SMS, every phone call, every URL, everything read on their computer, every book they have read, everything they have looked at for their entire life, will be stored!

This is an incredibly dangerous thing. Think of it: From laboratory studies of rats, we know that animals behave differently when they are being surveilled. When humans are being spied upon, we act differently, too. We have no idea what this is going to do to a whole generation of children who have been spied upon every second of their life.

Humans need the right to privacy. We also need the right to make mistakes and to move beyond our mistakes. The idea that a child has to live through the history of its mistakes when, say, Facebook does not delete these things -- the average Facebook profile on a user is 800 pages of information that is not visible to you, which is what they monetise.

So, even if you delete something, they have got it all and they sell this. This idea that children are not allowed to forget, that’s a crime against children that we are committing by destroying privacy. We are destroying our psyche as humans.

Surveillance is tied to US foreign policy, it is also tied to assassinations. The decision of who is to be assassinated using drone missiles in Afghanistan is based on this meta-data. So, for your foreign minister to claim that this is not snooping is rubbish. All of the pattern analyses that’s made for these kill, where is that data coming from for the US presidency to make the decision to assassinate people? From meta-data.

And that meta-data says, you are talking to Roy Singham, Roy is critical of the US government, Roy is a target, and by the (NSA’s) 3-hop rule, anybody who has sent an email or received one from me is hop 1 – you sent me an email years ago, so you are already hop 1; all of the people in your whole life that you have emailed or SMSed or written to you is hop 2; all of the people they have written to or talked to in their whole lives is hop 3. So, your mother is already hop 2, and every single person she has contacted in her life is hop 3. 

That’s the level of this dragnet. Fundamentally, this is all Big Data algorithms.  And what is the logical extension of this? It is, why not just assassinate people before they become dissidents – because I know that your father went to two demonstrations, your mother went to two demonstrations, you have read some of these very dangerous books, like Catcher in the Rye, you talked to the wrong history professor, you went on the wrong website, which is critical of the government.

So now, I have a Big Data algorithm that looks at all these patterns and says, “you know what, this guy has a 17.6 per cent chance of becoming a terrorist when he reaches the age of 40. Let’s just assassinate him now.”

Let’s talk IT. You want Thoughtworks to be the leader in Frugal Innovation and you lay much store by local markets in India and other developing country markets.

Why are we concerned about local markets? We are actually in a very long cycle of a very long decline in GDP growth in the advanced countries. Over the next 20 years, in order to have a sustainable business, you really need to understand how to create a new kind of software for the growing small and medium businesses in the BRICS and the global south.

Now, this is not going to be the same as adding a Facebook clone. We need Frugal Innovation: how can you make open hardware, and devices for the global south with open source software that reduces the cost.

Whoever figures that out does two things: They create a new market, but they also help the poor of the world. Our fundamental focus is, how do we turn away from innovating for the affluents, which is what all the tech firms in India, and even Thoughtworks currently, do and move into Frugal Innovation.

For us, it is also partially a social issue. Way too much of the world’s resources are focused on the high-end commercial formal sector in the rich countries and the world’s talent is not thinking one aota about what’s happening in, for instance, Chattisgarh.

That’s morally offensive to us. We are not going to be able to fix it all, but we have said internally at Thoughtworks that we are going to redirect our energies to provide high quality software to, say, a hospital in Chhattisgarh. Now, I do not want to pretend that it is bigger than it is. We are small, so there is only so much we can do. But I think the responsibility of the intellectual classes is to redirect their energies away from their own needs to thinking more broadly.

The Indian IT sector is not thinking on those lines. It is happy doing outsourcing for the Fortune 2000 companies.

Unfortunately, the tech sector is just full of themselves. The Indian tech sector is a huge beneficiary of the SEZs and tax incentives – don’t get me wrong, I didn’t come here to say, India is all rubbish, we are beneficiaries of Indian taxes, too.

I am not blaming the Indian tech sector alone. I blame me, too. We have made mistakes. So easy when you are running a tech firm running outsourcing to just go after the markets, and I have done that, and I regret doing that. I have made many mistakes in India – not being in a tier-2 city, not being in the east (of the country), not being in local innovation first.

Now we are trying to change all that since 2011, when we should have been doing it in 2004. Very hard to change the culture of affluence and opulence and plenty to a Frugal Innovation culture. Hopefully, we will succeed.

What are you doing on the Frugal Innovation front?

Well, basically, this is where our social impact helps us. Being there in projects in Chhttisgarh where they have created amazing devices for testing pollution in the water, etc., -- these are not our innovations, these are others’ innovations, but by us being close to people in the rural areas, working on frugal innovation with scientists and doctors, we are hoping that we can use our software practice – we have a group of 18 people living and working in Chhatisgarh to build software for that region.

In Brazil, we are working with design organisations and universities to build a new practice of Frugal Design. In China, we are trying to create new open source software that goes after untapped markets in things like environmental teaching in rural China. We are also trying to build open ERP in Tamil Nadu. These are some experiments we are doing, but trust me success is yet to be had. We have a long way to go. 

We are also seeing a new generation of Indian entrepreneurs, who are in their 40s. What’s happening now is because of mobile computing, because you have to worry about the changed user behaviour of young people, you are seeing that (existing) software packages don’t solve your problem.

Even if you are a normal travel company in India, you have a new technological need, and I think you are seeing people more open to coming up with interesting solutions in software that didn’t happen even four years ago. So, the local markets, especially in India, are going to grow pretty quickly.

What are the big technology trends you are seeing?

I think, Mobile is big, and the next big thing – five years down the line – is the Internet of Things, ubiquitous computing. When that happens, every country is going to adjust differently. Software is going to change completely. So, the current focus on Mobile will go away and you will need a much broader set of systems design and thinking, and (existing) software packages are not going to solve those problems.

We are planning to be ready for the next five years for how to think differently about open hardware, new hardware, information systems, things like building restaurants where the tables have the menus – these are in prototype stages in the rich countries.

This will happen over time in other markets, they will be cheaper, they will be different. We should, as a company, be in a position to advocate the most in terms of systems thinking and integrated software-hardware, ubiquitous computing systems. So, that’s our big hope in the local market in India.

Cisco is already talking about the Internet of Everything

Well, if you tie that to the NSA, it goes back to the surveillance thing. The Internet of Everything is unfortunately tied to politics and sociology, which I think is dangerous.

How are you going to be different, because if you are going to do the Internet of Things, you will have to have sensors, analytics, Big Data?

Yes, Big Data is really a big issue. Machine learning becomes important, systems have to think differently. Big Data is really complicated, how people behave changes, how we look at usability changes, you might not have a smartphone in five years – your clothes will have devices, who knows. It may not happen but certainly there’s a possibility that laptops and PCs will disappear, I can even see a future without smartphones.

My worry, though, is that all this wonderful techie thing is tied to politics and governments. Already, when I go into a store, they have devices by which they can figure out the patterns of where you are walking in the store.

So now when you have devices in your clothes, everything is known to somebody else, my sex life is known, I don’t know – where’s the end of this thing? People have talked about how we are increasingly becoming dependent on machines.

In 15 years, we are going to be at the edges of these things. I don’t think the human race always properly anticipates the unintended consequences of these things. I am not a tech utopian, I am a tech pragmatist, and I worry that the current social infrastructure is not ready for these things. So, I am actually an advocate of slowing down and thinking through such things (as the Internet of Things), even though I love my gadgets.