ccording to a recent judgement of the Supreme Court of India, we the citizens are entitled to enjoy privacy as a fundamental right. But the biggest violator of this right, apparently, is the State itself. In a world where our smartphones are snooping on us each second and extracting data in multiple forms, be it video, audio, images, location and even our heart rates and biometrics, it is no surprise if the state agencies, too, peep into our lives without permission, without ascribing any reason.
A recent addition to the State’s arsenal of tools assisting in maintenance of law and order is Automated Face Recognition Software (AFRS). The Delhi Police is reported to have used AFRS to screen crowds during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election rally last December. The scope of misuse of this software is huge. Once a system identifies a person as a protester or bad element, s/he would be identified across multiple platforms. Say the person visits a railway station or any other public facility and his images get captured by closed-circuit television cameras there, the police will be able to keep track of this person’s every movement by collating data from across databases. The biggest problem with the availability of such software is that while they may make crime detection easy for the authorities concerned, its use to target non-criminal individuals, who could have dissenting views with the government, may also be targeted for constant surveillance and psychological manipulation.
Sometime back, there were reports that a spyware developed by the Israeli cyberarms firm, NSO Group, was used to surreptitiously snoop on several persons from India. The spyware, Pegasus, is able to install itself on smartphones by merely making a missed call to the target phone. What the Indian government is doing is to create a form of psychological and structural violence. It can then also easily turn into physical violence. The ability to target the violence at specific individuals makes the task easier for the police. Such a surveillance State is a horrifying scenario. It is already known that the current dispensation has used several modern means to tackle violence. Following the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A, the clampdown on Jammu and Kashmir has been bolstered by the Internet ban. The ban has continued despite a Supreme Court order seeking to lift the restrictions after reviewing the situation. Of course, the State claimed it has reviewed the situation and found it still inadvisable to lift the ban. Amid the hullabaloo over Internet clampdown, an official also created ripples stating that the control over Internet chiefly affected only the viewing of pornographic content and nothing else.
Unfortunately, this exposed that very same official whose Internet service provider should be asked to give last couple of years’ data on his site visit history. The State has been repeating that infiltrators in the Valley were using the Internet to spread false news and also to mobilise mobs of stone pelters against the forces.
Horror stories are yet to emerge. It will take just a while longer before the real colours of those wielding such powers will come out in the open. But it will be too late for at least some of the victims of the surveillance State. Their voices would by then have been suppressed without the ordinary people surrounding them getting an inkling of what was really happening with them. The powers we have bestowed upon the State require responsible use for the benefit of the nation. But the existing milieu is such that there is rampant vilification of dissenters and suppression of voices by numerous means. The dangers here can be seen by those in power only when they remove their tinted glasses of supposed religious righteousness.