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Internet Privacy and Why You Should Care

“The way things are supposed to work is that we’re supposed to know virtually everything about what they [the government] do: that’s why they’re called public servants. They’re supposed to know virtually nothing about what we do: that’s why we’re called private individuals.”

― Glenn Greenwald

A glimmer of hope in the fight for privacy emerged in August 2017 as the Indian Supreme Court upheld the Right to Privacy as a fundamental right. This, however, is more like ammunition in this battle rather any sort of decisive victory. Less than a year later emerged the central government’s desire to deploy a social media analytical tool to monitor citizens online. On 21st December, news agencies broke that the Ministry of Home Affairs had authorised agencies to intercept and monitor any information on any computer, bringing the issue of government surveillance of its citizens to the forefront.

India is yet to enact any data protection laws, and the debate that emerges from this new development will be fought as a partisan issue–The BJP arguing that the new notification does not go beyond the already existing IT Act of 2000, and the Congress defending privacy in a bid to appear the champion of the people’s rights. The issue at hand, however, is beyond any single political party, and this development brings to the floor an important discussion. In an era where data is the new currency and people are the products rather than customers, who has access to what we are doing when online is an increasingly important concern—or at least it ought to be.

Google remembers every place a user has visited ( Image Source: CNBC )

It, however, is not, and this can partly be attributed to the fact that the power that lies in our personal information is not fully understood. The business models of technology giants like Google and Facebook push for an ever-increasing collection and correlation of data from every avenue possible. With so much of our lives spent online, this data can tell a lot more about us than we might expect or intend it to. Our shopping habits, financial transactions, media consumption, online searches, messages, and location history together can create comprehensive profiles of who we are. With the right tools, this data can predict our behaviour, it can reveal what we’re thinking, what issues are important to us, and who we are likely to vote for. We can then potentially be served with just the right content to manipulate us to serve the needs of those serving us with this content.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal and personalised targeting ( Image Source: The Guardian )

In the case of governments, this need is the need to gain power. Democracy has no illusions about the benevolence of those in power. By its nature, power is capable of abuse and checks to this power are of surmounting importance. Admittedly in a different context, American Founding Father James Madison wrote that “the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed, and in the next place oblige it to control itself”. The security of our rights cannot be trusted to the good intentions of our leaders, and hence it is in the interests of the people to ensure that the best way to stay in power is to serve the people. Democracy, to an extent, manages to do this.

However, if a government has access to the phones and computers of its citizens, a better way of staying in power makes itself available. Apart from the Black Mirror-esque mental manipulation through targeted social media content, this access opens up avenues to crack down on political opponents, minorities, and anyone who poses a threat to power and their intentions.

These programs were never about terrorism. They do have value; mass surveillance has value—just not for saving lives. It is valuable for traditional espionage diplomatic manipulation, economic espionage, and social influence; controlling the narrative shaping the way the world thinks about issues and understanding what everybody’s thinking, who is connected to who. These programs are about power. Privacy versus security, they say that’s what this is about. This is not what that’s about.

-Whistleblower Edward Snowen, who leaked classified documents revealing the NSA’s global surveillence program

National security provides a reasonable cover for such access—is saving lives and protecting the nation not more important than your privacy? Does it not outweigh distant dystopian fears? What tilts the scales towards the answer that it doesn’t is the fact that its likelier that it’ll be ordinary citizens affected more than any real threats.

“Surveillance of American phone metadata has had no discernible impact on preventing acts of terrorism” ( Source: New America Foundation )

If the government were to enforce backdoors in all applications available to the people, it would first open them up not just to systematic abuses by the system but misuse by individuals within the system. Backdoors also make the possibility of compromise of applications and data likelier, threatening not just the people but the very nation that sought to protect itself by implementing this measure.

Secondly, there is the question of just how much national security will actually be bolstered. With practically unbreakable encryption a reality, government interception and monitoring can be circumvented by anyone with malicious intents, while this is less of an option for law-abiding citizens if the government mandates backdoors in all commercial products. The end result is thus that the government is now empowered to identify and target dissidents, with security not being much more enhanced.   

This is not an unavoidable end that our society is heading towards, but the nature of the establishment makes this a very real threat to guard ourselves against. Every inch of ground lost in this battle makes it that much harder to fight back, skewing the odds against the people even more. The war of today’s generation is one that we cannot afford to lose. At stake is our freedom and our very democracy.

Featured Image: parablesblog.blogspot.com

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