Do you want to be watched?

The new rules under the IT Act are an assault on our freedom

Privacy is a necessary but not sufficient condition for security. A bank safe is safe only because the keys are held by a trusted few. No one else can access these keys or has the ability to duplicate them. The 2008 Amendment of the Information Technology (IT) Act and their associated rules notified April 2011 proposes to eliminate whatever little privacy Indian netizens have had so far. Already as per the internet service provider (ISP)  license, citizens using encryption above 40-bit were expected to deposit the complete decryption key with the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology. This is as intelligent as citizens of a neighbourhood making duplicates of the keys to their homes and handing them over at the local police station. With the IT Act’s latest rules things get from bad to worse. (For an analysis of the new rules under the IT Act, see the In Parliament section of this issue).

Now imagine my daughter visits the neighborhood cybercafe, the manager would now be entitled to scan her ID document and take a photograph of her using his own camera. He would also be authorised to capture her browser history including unencrypted credentials and authentication factors. He would then store this information for a period of one year and provide them to any government entity that sends him a letter. He could continue to hold on to the files as there would be no clear guidelines or penalties around deletion. The ISP that provides connectivity to the cybercafe would store a copy of my daughter’s Internet activities for two years. None of our ISPs publish or provide on request a copy of their data retention policies.


Now suppose my daughter used an online peer-production like Wikipedia or social-media platform like MySpace to commit an act of blasphemy by drawing fan-art for her favorite Swedish symphonic black metal band. A neo-Pentecostal Church sends a takedown notice to the website hosting the artwork. Unfortunately, this is a fringe Web 2.0 platform run by Indian entrepreneur who happens to be a friend of yours. When the notice arrived, our entrepreneur was in the middle of a three-week trek in the Himalayas. Even though he had disabled anonymous contributions and started comprehensive data retention of user activity on the site, unfortunately he was not able to delete the offending piece of content within 36 hours. If the honourable judge is convinced, both your friend and my daughter would be sitting in jail for a maximum of three years for the newly christened offence of blasphemous online speech.

You might dismiss my misgivings by saying “after all we are not China, Saudi Arabia or Myanmar”, and that no matter what the law says we are always weak on implementation. But that is completely missing the point. The IT Act appears to be based on the idea that the the Indian public can be bullied into self-censorship via systemic surveillance. Employ tough language in the law and occasionally make public examples of certain minor infringers. There have been news reports of young men being jailed for using expletives against Indian politicians or referring to a head of state as a “rubber stamp.” The message is clear—you are being watched so watch your tongue.

Surveillance capabilities are not a necessary feature of information systems. They have to be engineered into these systems. Once these features exists, they could potentially serve both the legally authorised official and other undesirable elements. Terrorists, cyber-warriors and criminals will all find systems with surveillance capabilities easier to compromise. In other words, surveillance compromises security at the level of system design. There were no internet connections or phone lines in the bin Laden compound—he was depending on store and forward arrangement based on USB drives. Do we really think that registration of all USB drives, monitoring of their usage and the provision of back doors to these USBs via master key would have lead the investigators to him earlier? Has the ban on public wi-fi and the current ID requirements at cyber-cafes led to the arrest of any terrorists or criminals in India? Where is the evidence that resource hungry blanket surveillance is providing return on investment? Intelligence work cannot be replaced with resource-hungry blanket surveillance. Unnecessary surveillance distracts the security with irrelevance.

Increase in security levels is not directly proportional to increase in levels of surveillance. A certain amount of surveillance is unavoidable and essential. But after the optimum amount of surveillance has been reached, additional surveillance only undermines security. The multiple levels of data retention at the cybercafe, by the ISP and also by the application service provider does not necessarily make Indian cyberspace more secure. On the contrary, redundant storage of personal sensitive information only acts as multiple points of failure and leaks—in the age of Niira Radia and Amar Singh one does not have be reminded of authorised and unauthorised surveillance and their associated leaks.

Finally, there is the question of perception management. Perceptions of security does not only depend on reality but on personal and popular sentiment. There are two possible configurations for information systems—one, where the fundamental organising principle is trust or second, where the principle is suspicion. Systems based on suspicion usually gives rise to criminal and corrupt behavior. If the state were to repeatedly accuse its law-abiding citizens of being terrorists and criminals, it might end up provoking them into living up to these unfortunate expectations. If citizens realise that every moment of their digital lives is being monitored by multiple private and government bodies—they will begin to use anonymisation and encryption technology round the clock even when it is not really necessary. Ordinary citizens will be forced to visit the darker and nastier corners of the internet just to download encryption tools and other privacy enabling software. Like the prohibition, this will only result in further insecurity and break-down in the rule of law.

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