Sunday, June 10, 2018

Sunday Spotlight: 'Surveillance is the anti-thesis of freedom' : Shemin Joy

Deccan Herald: Pune: Sunday, June 10, 2018.
Starting with the bid to convert the Aadhaar identity into a surveillance tool, the government has begun to build a whole infrastructure of surveillance and monitoring of almost every aspect of citizens’ lives. The I&B ministry’s Social Media Communication Hub proposal is only the latest such move by the government, says Dr Reetika Khera, Associate Professor (Economics and Public Systems) at IIM-Ahmedabad, in an interview with Shemin Joy of DH. Excerpts:
Why should we be worried about the government looking into our social media feeds?
The clearest answer to this question in recent times has come from (the American whistleblower) Edward Snowden. The right to privacy is nothing but the freedom of speech. He said, “Saying you don’t care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is like saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”
Are we on the way to becoming a surveillance state with Aadhaar, chipsets in our TV set-top boxes that tell the I&B ministry what we are viewing and now the proposed social media monitoring hub?
Every day, one hears about the new uses that governments and corporations want to put these technologies to: monitoring the behaviour of citizens in China through its social crediting system (do they jaywalk, do they pay bills on time, etc.,) to grade and rank citizens, drones being taught to spot violent behaviour in crowds, etc. One certainly gets the sense that we are coming closer to living in the dystopic world of ‘Black Mirror’ (a Netflix series).
Throughout history, States have always used whatever tools of control are at their disposal. The new technologies, including social media, have afforded an unprecedented opening to the State to escalate such control. Therefore, I am not surprised that they try to concentrate power in their hands through technologies such as Aadhaar, social media monitoring hubs, etc., to discipline and control people. What is surprising and disappointing is that we learn so little from history.
A stated goal of the social media hub is to mould public perception about the government and to inculcate ‘nationalistic feelings’ in citizens…
The new technologies that have taken our lives by storm receive a lot of good press. In fact, there is a dark side to these technologies (including their use in weapons), which is only now beginning to get some attention. These technologies are double-edged. They have a democratising potential, but they also have the potential to concentrate power. What is shocking is that these technologies of social and political control are being allowed (even welcomed by some) in India, despite our our being a democracy.
Are we just scared or are we over-reacting. Are these technologies a real threat?
I do not think that we are over-reacting; if anything, we have had a delayed reaction. Yet, I do not think it is too late. For example, in 2002, the Vajpayee government passed a wholly inadequate ‘Freedom of Information Act’. Through public pressure, consensus-building and other democratic means, in 2005, it was replaced by a much stronger law, the RTI Act. The main threat arises from the the coercive and ubiquitous use of Aadhaar. The coercion is necessary because, contrary to the government’s assertion, Aadhaar is a nuisance for ordinary people and brings next to no benefits to them.
Is our development paradigm lopsided with this sort of surveillance state?
Development and surveillance just cannot go together. Development means freedom. Surveillance, on the other hand, is the anti-thesis of freedom.