Surveillance Nationalism

Satyakam Ray

Renowned Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov wrote,

“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 becomes a factual present if we consider the recent mass surveillance programs conducted by various governments.

  • In August 2014, it was reported that 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, the “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, censor 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) enables the Indian government to listen to phone conversations, intercept emails and text messages, monitor posts on social media, and track searches on Google.
  • Mastering the Internet (MTI) – In this program, the 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) that can target any individual outside or inside the US.
  • Pegasus Project- Israel-based NSO group provides spyware to the governments to control surveillance operations to curb terrorism and ensure national security. But recent revelations point to the misuse of spyware by various governments to deny press freedom and silence the critics.

These Programs are the tip of the iceberg. 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 tough questions about personal privacy and freedom of expression, leading to human rights violations.

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

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 live in. According to her, surveillance capitalism is centered around commodifying personal data to target advertising later. Almost every social media platform, including Google, works on the capitalistic internet model. The Facebook security policy update, which caused so much stir internationally, is part of such digital surveillance.

Zuboff identified four critical 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 severe privacy breaches. Surveillance capitalism often predicts consumer behavior patterns and, after a while, controls the individual buying traits involuntarily. At the same time, surveillance nationalism tends to pawn a person into a mere entity of digital snooping and a widespread propaganda drive. Both concepts are alien to the average unsuspecting citizen who AGREES to every term and condition without reading them on the first go! Little do they know that a single app can 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 primary 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 citizens’ freedom of speech and individual privacy, governments cannot restrict themselves from collecting biometric data and other essential information. Instead, full-scale digital spying has secretly been going on government facilities’ back doors for many years. 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 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 from Yahoo users’ video chats every five minutes and stored them for other purposes.

After the digital espionage came to public notice through the Guardian and The Washington Post, the Department of State revoked Snowden’s passport. He was detained at Moscow airport and, after the subsequent extensions of asylum, was finally 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. The Federal Trade Commission fined Facebook $5 billion 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 troubling yet confusing question is this- WE DON’T KNOW. Various controversies emerged concerning privacy and were thoroughly discussed in public forums. Some were challenged even in the courts. But now, with the Pegasus privacy row, it’s alleged that the govt is actively involved in mass-scale surveillance.

  • Aadhar Card Privacy issue: Hyper-nationalistic voices hail Aadhar as the champion of Indian Unity. It identifies all Indians with unique IDs with a massive database built for safeguarding biometrics data and other sensitive information citizens. The government has made it mandatory for all Indians and issued deadlines to connect all 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. 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 citizen’s consent. It’s alleged that Aadhar card information was 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 and private sector employees and 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 subject, a few skeptics were still not convinced.
  • NaMo App– After being promoted by PM Modi, the NaMo app collected information about Indians, promising it won’t provide information without user consent to third parties. But the data breach happened when the app quietly shared sensitive user info without their permission with an American firm. But it was exposed, thus fueling the privacy debate further.
  • Facebook Hate speech row: In a report, The Wall Street Journal claimed that Facebook ignored applying its hate-speech rules to some BJP politicians while working as a censor for other parties. The information 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 content interference.

The Indian government does have vital 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 the interception, monitoring, or decryption of any information through any computer resource. It can be used both to check internal security and suppress dissent.

The Twitter account block of several prominent ones supporting the farmer protests by government order shows the extent of collusion between surveillance capitalism and surveillance nationalism. Though the accounts were unblocked later, 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 every citizen’s fundamental right to privacy under Article 21. The enforcement of the pending Personal Data Protection Bill 2019 (The PDP Bill) can re-assure the protection of the personal data of individuals in India.

Infused with a false sense of Nationalism and total ignorance about data privacy concerns, many argue that data privacy is a matter of personal choice as we tend to share everything on social media platforms without overthinking. 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 citizens’ privacy to a new low.
  • Identity theft is possible in the surveillance state where one individual loses his proof of existence in a fancy digital utopia.
  • Political interference and influence can quickly 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 quickly by 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 influenced by Nationalism.
  • 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 grasp our future fully.


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