Surveillance Nationalism

Satyakam Ray

Renowned Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov had written,

“The government doesn’t want any system of transmitting information to remain unbroken unless it’s under its control.”

The fictional tale of the past is turning out to be factual present if we consider recent mass surveillance programs conducted by various governments surreptitiously.

  • In August 2014, it was reported that the Australian law-enforcement agencies had been accessing the web browsing histories of citizens via Internet providers such as Telstra without a warrant.
  • China’s mass censorship and surveillance project “Golden shield project” is operated by the Chinese Ministry of Public Security. It’s a tool used by the Chinese government to spy on the citizens and if required bring forth censor to the web content.
  • Project 6 – A global surveillance project jointly operated by the German Intelligence agencies BND and BfV in close cooperation with the US agency CIA.
  • Central Monitoring System (CMS) – It enables the Indian government to listen to phone conversations, intercept e-mails and text messages, monitor posts on social media, and track searches on Google.
  • Mastering the Internet (MTI) – In this program, British intelligence agency GCHQ gathers the contents of email messages, entries on Facebook, and the web browsing history of internet users.
  • PRISM- A clandestine national security electronic surveillance program operated by the US National Security Agency (NSA) which can target any individual outside or inside the US.
  • Pegasus Project- Israel-based NSO group provides spyware to the governments to take care of the surveillance operations to curb terrorism and ensure national security. But recent revelations point to the misuse of spyware by various governments to curb press freedom and silence the critics.

These Programs are the tips of the icebergs. After the 9/11 attack on the US, several intelligence and law enforcement agencies deemed it appropriate to spy on individuals by electronic or digital means to prevent further terrorist activities. But by doing so, they have cast serious questions on personal privacy and freedom of expression in a way leading to violation of human rights.

What if, this unprecedented privacy breach is projected the other way around. Under the garb of national duty, if gullible citizens are allured or coerced to do certain things that are beyond their comprehension or control but affect their privacy very badly, then the concept can be termed as surveillance nationalism. With a subtle touch of jingoism, every pervasive digital snooping on citizens is shown as legal by silencing valid concerns raised by a few sane voices.

Digital snooping + Jingoism = Surveillance Nationalism

How it’s different from Surveillance capitalism?

Shoshana Zuboff’s book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism throws light on this sensitive, but slightly obscure digital bubble we are living in. According to her, surveillance capitalism is centered around the commodification of personal data with the purpose of targeted advertising later. Now, almost every social media platform including Google works on the internet capitalistic model. The Facebook security policy update, which caused so much stir internationally, is part of such digital surveillance.

Zuboff identified four key aspects of surveillance capitalism.

  • Emphasis on data extraction and analysis
  • Development of new contractual forms using computer monitoring and automation
  • Customization of services offered to users of digital platforms
  • Carrying out experiments on consumers to predict their buying behavior

While the purview of surveillance capitalism is limited to advertisements/PR of products or services, surveillance nationalism causes more serious privacy breaches. Surveillance capitalism often predicts consumer behavior patterns and after a while controls the individual buying traits involuntarily. Whereas surveillance nationalism tends to pawn down a person to a mere entity of digital snooping and a wide-spread propaganda drive. Both the concepts are most of the time alien to the average unsuspecting citizen who just AGREES to every term and condition without reading them at first go! Little do they know that a single app can be used to access contacts, photographs, mobile information, streaming videos, and even switch on the camera if the user is dormant at will.

Government/Private snooping and its instances:

Various governments snoop over their citizens for the following basic reasons.

  • To fight terrorism
  • To prevent crime in the first place
  • To ensure national security
  • To prevent social dissent
  • To control the population

Despite much-needed assurance to maintain freedom of speech, individual privacy of their citizens, governments cannot just restrict themselves from collecting biometric data and other such basic information. Instead, full-scale digital spying is going on the back doors of the government facilities for so many years secretly. Thanks to the whistle-blowers, from time to time our illusion of living a free life under a thriving democracy is dashed severely and the truth is being blurted out.

Edward Snowden Incident: Edward Snowden, the American whistle-blower who blew the international community’s imagination into a frenzy after leaking highly classified information from the US’s National Security Agency (NSA), was a CIA employee and sub-contractor. His revelations pointed out numerous global surveillance programs run by NSA and the Five eyes intelligence in alliance with European governments and telecommunication companies. He revealed an NSA program called Optic Nerves. It captured webcam images every five minutes from Yahoo users’ video chats and stored them for further purposes.

After the digital espionage came into public notice through the guardian and The Washington Post, the Department of State revoked Snowden’s passport. He was detained in Moscow airport and after the subsequent extensions of asylum, finally was granted permanent residency in Russia in October 2020.

Cambridge Analytica Scandal: British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica led by data scientist Aleksandr Kogan harvested the data of up to 87 million Facebook profiles. The firm used this data to provide analytical assistance to the 2016 presidential campaigns of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump. A former Cambridge Analytica employee Christopher Wylie exposed this clandestine activity to The Guardian and The New York Times. Facebook was fined $5 billion by the Federal Trade Commission for its privacy violations. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress and was grilled over the privacy row. Since then the role of social media platforms and giant tech. companies have been under scrutiny by the public.

Does the Indian government spy on Indians?

The answer to this alarming yet confusing question is this- WE DON’T KNOW. Earlier it was the answer to the question. But now with the Pegasus privacy row, it’s almost certain that the govt. is actively involved in mass-scale surveillance. Various controversies emerged concerning privacy and were thoroughly discussed in public forums. Some were challenged even in the courts.

  • Aadhar Card Privacy issue: Hyper-nationalistic voices hail Aadhar as the champion of Indian Unity as it identifies all the Indians with unique IDs with a massive database built for safekeeping of biometrics data and other sensitive information of citizens. The government has been making it mandatory for all the Indians and issued deadlines to connect all the other prerequisite individual accounts like bank accounts, PAN, etc. with Aadhar. Many argue that it’s a breach of the Right to Privacy act and can be used as a mass surveillance tool. Well, the suspicion is not wrong considering recent cases of privacy breaches. With the purpose missing for data collection, the data can be used for other purposes illegally without the consent of the citizen. It’s alleged that Aadhar card information was being sold out in the Internet black market at only 500 rupees, the truth is yet to be ascertained.
  • Aarogya Setu App row: During the corona pandemic, the government made this app compulsory for all public, private sector employees, as well as those in containment zones. French ethical hacker Elliot Alderson alias white hat raised an issue with the app by stating that the privacy of 90 million Indians was at stake. Though the government has clarified its stance on the issue, a few skeptics were still not convinced.
  • NaMo App– After being promoted by PM Modi himself, the NaMo app collected information about Indians promising that it won’t provide information without user consent to third parties. But the data breach happened when the app shared sensitive user info without their consent to an American firm quietly. But it was exposed thus fueling the privacy debate further.
  • Facebook Hate speech row: The Wall Street Journal in a report claimed that Facebook ignored applying its hate-speech rules to some BJP politicians while working as a censor for other parties. The report created a row in India with a strong reaction from opposition parties. Facebook India Policy head Ankhi Das eventually resigned from her post after alleged involvement in the interference of content.

The Indian government does have the strong Section 69 of the Information Technology Act,2000 in its armor to keep the population in check digitally. It gives the power to issue directions for interception or monitoring or decryption of any information through any computer resource. It can be used both ways- to check internal security and to suppress dissent.

The Twitter account block of several prominent ones who were supporting the farmer protests by the order of the government to Twitter shows the extent of collusion between surveillance capitalism and surveillance nationalism. Though the accounts were unblocked later and it was feared that the reason for blocking was the promotion of a malicious hashtag campaign.

Do Indians care about data privacy at all?

In 2017, Indian Supreme Court ruled that the Indian Constitution guaranteed a fundamental right to privacy for every citizen under Article 21. It is the enforcement of the pending Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 (The PDP Bill) which can re-assure the protection of personal data of individuals in India.

Infused with a false sense of Nationalism and total ignorance about the concerns of data privacy, many persons argue that data privacy is a matter of personal choice as we tend to share everything on social media platforms without thinking too much. Well, their point of view is correct whimsically though it pertains to our carelessness while dealing with sensitive private data sharing.

Perils and Remedies of Surveillance Nationalism:

Perils:

  • It reduces the scope of personal privacy of the citizens to a new low.
  • Identity theft is a possibility in the surveillance state where one individual loses his proof of existence in a fancy digital utopia.
  • Political interference and influence can easily be done with the tools available thereby undermining the true essence of democracy.
  • Serious violation of human rights is a by-product of surveillance Nationalism, where every dissenting voice can be suppressed easily employing digital snooping.
  • A totalitarian autocracy can be built under the garb of thriving democracy with pangs of surveillance nationalism.

Remedies:

  • Educating the general mass about data privacy, what to share, or what not to is the preemptive approach to prevent any data breach, however, the strong may be the influenced nationalism is.
  • Knowing personal rights and responsibilities towards the nation is the primary job of every citizen. Digital literacy suffused with rationality is of paramount importance.
  • Keeping a liberal and curious mindset to counter extremist ideology is the way forward if we want to curb surveillance nationalism.

Written around 1599-1601 by William Shakespeare, the masterpiece Hamlet speaks about the “need for privacy”. Almost four centuries later, the play might be oblivious to a large group of people. But the underlying agenda is quite relevant considering the unchartered path we have chosen to walk in a digitally controlled society with surveillance nationalism lying on the corner to fully grasp our future.

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