Privacy on test

Print edition : May 04, 2012

British Prime Minister David Cameron. The new law that his government has proposed, on tapping Internet traffic, is in addition to the existing power to listen in on telephone calls.-LAI SENG SIN/AP

The proposed new law in the U.K. that will permit the monitoring of all Internet traffic, ostensibly to combat terrorism, raises hackles over the right to privacy.

THE 9/11 attacks in the United States undeniably changed our lives in many ways. As a direct consequence of that monumental catastrophe, the U.S. and many other countries rightly became paranoid about security. This affected individuals as well as organisations, causing them considerable inconvenience and loss of freedom in going about their daily chores. Accompanying this obsession with security was the conviction that all communication, in any form, between groups and persons even slightly suspected of terror links had to be monitored even if it was considered impractical to enforce a total ban on such traffic. This soon led to a consensus among nations that all telephonic conversations needed to be listened into, if possible in real time, with greater seriousness than before so that any exchange of data aimed at planning another massive attack was intercepted in time.

It was not as if statutes did not exist permitting government agencies to undertake this sensitive task. For instance, the U.S. had the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA), 1994, passed under the Clinton presidency. In the United Kingdom there is the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act of 2000. Both permit a lot of latitude and invest law enforcement with abundant discretion. In course of time, such laws had to provide for the arrival of newer technology and the phenomenon of social networks, which afforded antisocial elements nearly anonymous avenues to transmit information facilitating crime.

The now popular Skype has emerged as one such efficient and economical means of keeping in touch with the rest of the globe. Facebook and similar forums also provide elements inimical to peace and harmony in society opportunities to communicate clandestinely within their groups of associates. This is the genesis and rationale of a desire of quite a few countries to expand their capacity for snooping with the help of new tools and a fresh legal armoury. If one considers terrorist groups' growing propensity to violence and their capacity to use the latest in communication networks, the establishment's response may not be unreasonable.

However, what has been ignored in the process is the high cost involved in building such counterterrorist prowess, with its attendant denial of funds for development work in the relatively poorer countries. In the somewhat affluent nations, concerns over security override the citizens' need for privacy. This was especially true of the U.S. and the U.K. Authorities on both sides of the Atlantic seemed oblivious to the undesirable consequence of this in the realm of privacy. This trend of huge investment in technology and greater intrusion into the common person's life has continued unabated since then, and the feeble voices against them have been largely ignored. This is unfortunate if one reckons the unabashed official misuse of the capacity to eavesdrop on telephone calls and Internet traffic.

Uninhibited snooping on political rivals by a government is now taken for granted, and denials of charges on this score by the establishment invite only sneers. Watchdogs such as the judiciary have been ineffective in preventing the erosion of the fundamental right to anonymity and privacy because of the sheer inability of victims of state intrusion to prove that they have indeed been vandalised. Such is the power of the state and its sophistication in covering up its transgressions.

Very few countries have a clean record in this respect. The less said about India the better. As in the case of corruption, there are no saints here across the political spectrum. We are aware of the rise of new government outfits solely to upgrade snooping on behalf of the government. This subject has figured repeatedly in Parliament, but the debates have thrown up more heat than light. There is no certainty that parliamentary discussions have had the intended effect of ensuring that there is no intrusion into the people's sacred right to privacy when they lawfully communicate with others.

Monitored telephone calls and e-mails bring in such an abundant plunder of information that political bosses who call the tune at any point of time are extremely pleased with what is produced before them, and the civil service purveyors of stolen information get duly rewarded. This is a drama that passes unnoticed because of the secrecy that envelops the whole process.

This preamble to my column provides the context to a controversy that is now raging in the U.K. British Prime Minister David Cameron is really in a pickle over a reform that will have a far-reaching impact on the values his country has cherished from time immemorial. His coalition government is under fire for proposing a new law that will help official monitoring of Internet traffic in real time. If and when Parliament approves it, the new facility to pry into the Internet will be in addition to the existing power to listen in on telephone calls, of course with due authorisation from the Home Secretary.

This has generated a massive controversy, with the junior partner in government, the Liberal Democrats, distancing itself from the draft legislation. Under the contemplated law, it would be mandatory for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to allow real-time scrutiny of Internet traffic records by competent government authorities. It is believed that the law would demand revelation of facts of who contacted whom, at what time and for how long. There will be no need for ISPs to make available texts of e-mails. On the face of it, this appears to be an innocuous and a justified piece of help to those charged with the duty of combating terrorism and organised crime. The point that has been raised by many sceptics is whether the current technology is sharp enough to prevent unauthorised exposure of contents of mails. Can there be an unwitting revelation of what requires to remain purely in the private domain? Also, can a rogue in the security services, who has been compromised, gain access to what is written on a mail? Going by the experiences of many of those who have been in government in the past, these misgivings are not ill-founded.

One major difference that the proposed Bill in the U.K. seeks to make from the current regulations is that each ISP will have to store data in a back door into their systems to which the authorised agencies will have free access. The prevailing practice is for the latter to make an application to an ISP seeking information whenever required. Possibly this imposed a certain protocol that inhibited frequent snooping.

The new law dispenses with this rigmarole and allows real-time snooping. The proposed system imposes a certain financial burden on the ISPs which they resent. The whole scene, therefore, reeks with negatives that the coalition government has to battle. It is not clear whether David Cameron will ultimately succeed in pushing this through Parliament, particularly when a few people in his own party have misgivings over the wisdom of creating a law that could become an albatross around their necks.

If this worrying development in the U.K. is not enough, news that comes from the U.S. is of even more concern. The much-dreaded National Security Agency (NSA) there is building a new massive data centre (euphemism for a spy centre) at Bluffdale (Utah). This $2-billion facility will be ready in September 2013. What will it do? None can be more authentic than Wired, a magazine that keeps tabs on all technological trends across the globe.

Talking of the Utah facility, Wired refers to it as a project of immense secrecy; it is the final piece in a complex puzzle assembled over the past decade. Its purpose: to intercept, decipher, analyse, and store vast swaths of the world's communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks. Can you visualise anything more awesome than this for the future of privacy? My only fear is that India should not mechanically follow suit and indulge in this extravagance. The U.S.' National Aeronautics and Space Administration is flush with funds after 9/11. But in using this up it has possibly cast aside all that is valuable to us as human beings. Privacy is synonymous with civilisation. If that is sacrificed, what else is there for us to live for?

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor