The Central government’s recent directive giving a clutch of state agencies the right to snoop on citizens by electronic means has several grey areas which haven’t been sufficiently thought through. These could take the government to surrendering its sovereignty to foreign companies that control the technology and codes which make snooping on personal computers possible, and do deals that give them great power. It also leaves the decision about who is to be watched and why to the bureaucracy, with no oversight by the courts or Parliament.
Unlike the tapping of landline phones or opening letters sent by post, the new snooping methods involve not-so-simple options. To break into a computer would require the assistance of telecom companies, and to get at the information inside would require that of the Internet service provider. The giant outfits that control the Internet would not provide such assistance without a cost.
There are a whole lot of companies that control the Internet — Google, Amazon, Facebook, eBay, Instagram, Apple, Twitter and many, many others. Taken together, these companies have turned our computers and phones into a vast corporate-owned surveillance network. Of these, Facebook is the most active in India. In 2014, it spearheaded a campaign to elect Narendra Modi as Prime Minister. More recently, several journalists have accused Facebook of censoring political content by suspending accounts, labelling news as “spam”, and not permitting news organisations to promote their articles.
Google, the biggest Internet company, is also a big government contractor in the United States. As it turns out, “the same platforms and services that Google deploys to monitor people’s lives and grab their data could be put to use running huge a swathe of the US government, including the military, spy agencies, police departments and schools,” says a recent book Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet, by Yasha Levine. “Google has been doing brisk business selling Google Search, Google Earth and Google Enterprise (now known as G Suite) products to just about every major military and intelligence agency, including the US state department.
“By the time Google Federal went online in 2006, the Pentagon was spending the bulk of its budget on private contractors. That year, of the $60 billion US intelligence budget, 70 per cent, or $42 billion, went to corporations.”
The big telecom industries in India, like Reliance Jio and Bharati Telecom, have direct access to mobile “smartphones” on which many people access their emails and use for other purposes like keeping their data files. Any help given to the government in getting hold of such data would involve a negotiation between them, the results of which would not necessarily be in the government’s favour and certainly not in the citizen’s favour — as it would leave these telecom firms with the right to snoop on their customers. One action possible for individuals is to disconnect from the Internet to prevent snooping. Another factor that would make random snooping more difficult is that normally the data is in millions of computers, and is so much that they have to identify some keywords used by “terrorists”, or other potential targets, to decide which ones they want to look at in detail.
The 10 agencies which have been given the power to order electronic surveillance are varied in nature and cover most government functions relating to information gathering. Of these, three are related to economic life, five cover general intelligence gathering and only two can be said to cover “terrorism”. The agencies have been authorised to pry “for the purpose of interception, monitoring and decryption of any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer resource”.
One worry among some businessmen is that this snooping could give the authorities the wherewithal to launch tax raids against them. While they do have a capacity to harass normal businessmen, will these new powers give them the ability to stop fraudulent robbing of banks by people like Nirav Modi and his ilk? Business people in India and elsewhere sometimes break the law by doing something that could be considered illegal, though not criminal. The normal processes of the enforcement authorities should be enough to catch and punish them. For them and others, including those in politics and public life, having to live with an intrusive system of surveillance ties down their performance and makes it difficult for them to function effectively.
Another worrying aspect is the excessive power this new move gives to the bureaucracy. If it were a genuine attempt to curb terrorism by invading our private lives and affairs, greater thought should have been given to ensure that it is free from any taint of being arbitrary and ill-conceived against political opponents. The decisions are to be made entirely by the government-appointed bureaucracy. They are not monitored either by the courts or by a parliamentary committee. In effect, they could turn out to be a means to denigrate critics and the government’s political opponents.
And instead of being a means to cow down opponents before the 2019 parliamentary election, if used wrongly, it could even galvanise the Opposition with a new issue. Given the past record of the Narendra Modi government, swift changes in the rules or laws are meant to give the ruling party an advantage in the future. The government has been playing around recklessly with the laws and rules, but this is creating a sense of disrespect for the law.
Its group of loyal adherents in the bureaucracy is gradually growing smaller. It’s doubtful that if the government wants to turn the full force of the new rules onto its political opponents, it will be able to do so. Far from showing the strength of the government, the move to pry into personal information stored in people’s computers really shows its weakness, and makes it a possible hostage to private telecom and Internet interests.