The dark side of tech came to the fore in 2013

2013 has been an exciting year in technology. It’s the year when technology headlines were not just about glitzy gadgets but about the dark side of tech. The explosive revelations by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden shook the world of technology, and forced it into a debate on civil liberties, privacy and even sovereignty. Its impact was wide ranging, from protests against the U.S. government across the world to governments mulling over ways to build a new, independent and decentralised Internet.

The occasional gadget release made waves, but these debates around surveillance — primarily by the NSA — became the mainstay of technology headlines this year. Closer home, these revelations turned the spotlight on the government’s new Centralised Monitoring System for surveillance, dubbed by privacy activists as a lethal instrument comparable to NSA’s PRISM project.

So, as we bid adieu to a revealing year, here’s a quick overview of some of the news that mattered in tech in 2013.

Snowden and PRISM

Earlier dismissed as ‘tech hippies’ or conspiracy theorists, advocates of software freedom and privacy had plenty of chance to say ‘I told you so’ all year. A series of exposes by Snowden, collected when he was working as an NSA contractor, rocked the world — documents on NSA-run programmes such as PRISM, XKeyScore and Tempora shed light on the U.S. government’s clandestine mass surveillance programmes that freely trawled the World Wide Web and collected private electronic data. The revelations continued through the second part of the year, spanning every type of surveillance from metadata to alleged spying on private emails of no less than German Chancellor Angela Merkel. That this surveillance had a trade aspect to it, revealed by an expose regarding the snooping on communications of Brazil’s public sector oil firm Petrobas and also on Brazilian top brass, including president Dilma Rouseff.

Miffed, Brazil proposed to build a more independent and decentralised Internet, and the last we heard South American countries were even discussing a common Internet connection, insulated from the networks of the developed world.

India too featured on the list of countries part of the surveillance programme, Xkeyscore. However, the Indian government has not officially taken up the issue with the U.S. government.

PRISM’s Indian cousin

As the spotlight shone on State surveillance, questions were raised about PRISM’s Indian cousin — the Centralised Monitoring System — the Indian government’s project at a cost of over Rs. 400 crore. Though there isn’t much clarity, or a much-needed public debate, over the scope of this system, it has been reported that the system will have unfettered access to interception systems installed by telecom operators. Privacy activists pointed out that in the absence of basic privacy laws, such a monitoring system could severely compromise data privacy and civil liberties.

Mass procurements rescue PCs

Even as PC sales worldwide continued its steep decline, India saw PC sales remain stable across quarters. Mostly buoyed by mass procurements for education projects, PC makers worldwide were relieve to see that last heard, sales continued to grown. PC sales grew 8.4 per cent to 3.2 million units in the quarter ended September compared to the year-ago period. Market research firm IDC reiterated that the trend was reflective of government procurement for education projects in Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

Tech and patents

The patent wars intensified in the tech world as technology biggies continued to drag each other to court. We saw a coming together of the biggies — Apple, Microsoft, RIM, Sony and Ericson — to fight search giant Google, and those hardware vendors that are seen as part of the extended Android family. The Rockstar Consortium, the name given to the big business equivalent of your old school patent troll doesn’t make anything itself but makes itself useful by getting its lawyer-engineer staffers to trawl products for patent infringements.

Bitcoins

Nearly four years after it was introduced, the world’s first distributed/decentralised currency that is generated and transacted in a peer-to-peer manner, held its first conference in Bangalore in December. But weeks later, India’s biggest Bitcoin trading exchange BuySellBitCo.in, shut shop. This followed an RBI release cautioning users, holders and traders of visual currencies, including Bitcoins about the “financial, operational, legal, customer protection and security-related risks that they are exposing themselves to”. Trading exchanges said that they viewed the cautionary statement as a precursor to a clampdown. RBI also pointed out that no regulatory approvals or authorisations were given for these currencies, including Bitcoins, litecoins, bbqcoins and dogecoins.

The RBI advisory follows the China Central Bank barring financial institutions from trading in Bitcoins and the European Banking Authority issuing a similar warning on the lack of consumer protection for the currency.