Views & Reviews
Gagging the Ideas
Creative mind requires an unrestrictive access to, and facilitative environment for dissemination, of information and ideas. The process involves postulating one’s thoughts, critical deliberation, dissenting and debating on issues that may relay constructive ideological baseline of one’s political thought, belief in social justice system, idea of economic development or cultural protection and preservation. Envisioning a state wherein free flow of ideas strengthens nationhood thereby contributes to the development of the nation, the Constitution guarantees freedom of expression (speech, written, symbol, and sign) as a fundamental right to every citizen. The intent and purpose is to protect a citizen from unfair state’s interference in a citizen’s right to innovate by positive propagation and application of information.
Falling in reverse to the constitutional virtues possesses a tendency to mutate a nation into a repressive state. A repressive and an authoritative state can be attained by running surveillance programs which may appear in different packages perfectly camouflaged as security measures, filtering communication or as welfare-oriented schemes. Aadhaar project, Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal and the proposed New Media Command Room of the Central government are some concerns posing imminent threat to the effective voice of dissention.
A 12-digit unique identification number is assigned to a citizen after having scanned a citizen of her biological information including iris, fingerprint and photograph along with documentation of demographic details such as name, address and phone number. Additional biological attributes (such as blood sample, voice sample, semen etc for precise identification) may also be collected as and when the UIDAI so decides. Not enough, the state has asked the citizens to link Aadhaar with bank accounts, phone numbers, PANs and other welfare schemes lest the citizens are denied of the facilities and services. Aadhaar project may not be a surveillance program. However, it has the capacity to be one. When our phones are tapped, the state gets the data but when the state knows whom we had coffee or dined with, whom we talked to, what we buy and eat, our sexual preference, our online behaviour, our political opinion, our medical and consulting records, our personal financial transaction, it is not just harvesting information but is amounting to snooping.
This is corroborated by the state’s insistence on linking of Aadhaar with most basic services by each citizen. The role of private players on insisting its prospective clients to furnishing Aadhaar or other identity details on any purchase does bear little difference. Information in silos is insignificant. Information in aggregate, on the other hand, is a concern. When our data is aggregated at the instance of the state, the state has a near perfect knowledge of our identity and nature (as described above) more than anyone else. The data may be manipulated to target those who falls from grace of the state as a result of divergent political thought one held, dissenting the policies of the government, or advocating an ideology that is not in conformity with the ideals of a / the political party/ies in power. Selective persecution or extermination of the perceived opponents by the state to silence the people’s voice cannot, therefore, be ruled out since ready access to database would render precise identification a less daunting task.
One may be reminded of the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal in which Facebook had admitted to breaching of 87 million Facebook users data which were then psychologically profiled and targeted them in election campaigns across the globe. In India too, a business firm, Ovleno Business Intelligence, was identified by the Cambridge Analytica where the former was alleged to have used the data harvested to influence Bihar’s 2010 general elections and Modi’s halfway mark mission in 2014 parliamentary election. Illegal data mining and unethical application of personal data by the state, political parties or private players will have widespread ramification on freedom of expression. The citizens will have reservations to freely express ones’ alternative opinion on politics, society or culture. This will mean unfolding an iron curtain on healthy development of minds.
After unsuccessful bid to constrict media, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has devised a new mechanism to filter and classify the ideas along the ambiguous line of “positive” and “negative” narrations. In a latest move to muzzle dissenting tone, the Ministry has proposed to set up the New Media Command Room which will be empowered with analytical software and a team of at least 20 professionals. The new mechanism would be tasked to monitor every Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Internet forums and email user. The purpose is to “analyse sentiment, identify fake news, disseminate information on behalf of the government and inject news and social media posts with a positive slant for India”.
This new social media monitoring system will digitally profile social media users and ascertain the opinions of the users on official government policies and programs. Any negative narration about the state and its governance faces imminent axe from the state. Experts construed the latest move as a tool to influence public opinion by the present dispensation by sifting out the negative comments against the government and to propagate the “good” side of the government in view of the approaching general election in 2019.
In whatever way, state’s close observation over online / social media activities of the citizens is but an intrusion into the private sphere, which is not only undermining privacy but is designed as deterrence for those who dare to challenge the “wrongs” of the state. Mostly, surveillance programs run in the name of national security are administrative measures that have political colours. Curtailment of constructive exchange of ideas under the pretext of national security, nationalism or national cohesion may instead boomerang, leading to weakening of state’s ability to respond to the incumbent challenges.
East Germany with its Ministry of Stasi dedicated to mass surveillance was never a strong state. Reports on attack of the World Trade Centre in 2001 shows that the failure to prevent the attack despite the slew of warnings suggests that what intelligence agencies require is not more data, but better responsiveness and appropriate information-sharing within government. The Union of India must also learn from these precedents where neither mass surveillance nor mining of data would yield the desired results. On the contrary, resourcefulness of the subjects facilitating by free and fair discussion and exchange of views will take nation forward. More trust between the state and the subjects as opposed to data ought to be mined.