“The Hindu”, in partnership with an international media consortium led by “WikiLeaks”, investigates communications intelligence technologies — and the risk their unregulated use is posing to all our lives

“It was even conceivable,” wrote George Orwell in his great work 1984, “that they watched everybody all the time.”

It is: in its December 2 issue, The Hindu, in partnership with an international consortium of newspapers, broadcast organisations, and privacy bodies brought together by WikiLeaks, will show that the dystopia Orwell imagined isn’t any longer a fantasy. The documents made available by the consortium provide unprecedented detail on the technologies now available to states, which allow for the large-scale interception of electronic communications: phone calls, whether mobile, landline, or satellite-based; email; web pages; text messages; in essence, almost anything.

Ever since the tragic 26/11 attacks, India has made massive investments in communications intelligence equipment. Its intelligence and police services now listen in to phone, satellite, and computer communications systems of terrorists and hostile intelligence services like the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate: Lashkar-e-Taiba commanders operating deep inside Pakistan must now fear their most secret communications are being listened in to. New technology acquisitions allow India to monitor hostile forces not only inside the country but across the region. At least two Indian companies offer electronics that can scan through massive amounts of electronic communications for specific voices or words, and automatically mine data for information.

Technologies like these helped trace the alleged terrorists arrested by the Delhi Police earlier this month on charges of having executed a series of bombings in 2010; in several cases, terrorist attacks have been pre-empted in this way.

But the very same technology also means someone is watching you. Every email you send out, every phone call you make, every internet page you visit, every text message you send out, every online purchase you make; every bank transaction you engage in — each of these potentially ends up in the records.

In India, unlike in some other democracies using these technologies, there is no intelligence regulatory system to safeguard citizens’ rights and privacies. A private members bill intended to regulate the intelligence services has been languishing in the Rajya Sabha. It takes little to see that the potential for abuse is enormous — indeed the complete apathy of the political class suggests at least some in power welcome such abuse.

The Hindu’s investigation will show that these fears are real. In several States, police forces and intelligence services using systems that scan through mobile phone and email traffic searching for threats have picked up private communications, in some cases involving politicians. In one case, a senior politician was even subjected to a blackmail bid. Elsewhere in the world, these technologies have become instruments central to sustaining tyrannies.

India is set to make ever-larger investments in these technologies, including its first dedicated spy satellite, which has been tentatively named CCISat. Indian military officials estimate that in the coming decade the country will spend Rs. 22,500 crore.

Big Brother, we know, was watching George Orwell: in 1942, he was spied on for suspicion of holding pro-communist views. Back then, British intelligence needed officers to monitor his movements and open his mail. Now all it would take is a click.

In 1984, Orwell wrote, “you have to live — did live, from habit that became instinct — in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinised.”

There is no disputing that lawfully and properly deployed, communications intelligence technologies play a useful role in protecting our freedoms. In the absence of robust oversight by the political system and citizens, though, they will almost certainly destroy them.

This is the third major data-trove-based project in which The Hindu is partnering with WikiLeaks. The first was the India Cables project (www.thehindu.com/news/the-india-cables): starting March 15, 2011, the newspaper offered readers a broad spectrum of articles and reports based on a selection of 5,100 cables, aggregating six million words, made available to it by WikiLeaks. These stories, often front-paged, and the relevant cables were published on 21 consecutive days and more followed later. In May 2011, The Hindu (www.thehindu.com/system/topicRoot/The_Pakistan_Cables) partnered with Dawn of Pakistan and NDTV 24x7 (www.ndtv.com) in doing a large number of articles and reports based on the Pakistan Cables, also made available by WikiLeaks. This time it will be a different kind of partnership: several media and privacy organisations brought together by WikiLeaks to work on a massive trove of data, share their research and insights, but do their own stories independently.

We believe these stories and the documents they are based on have been, and will be, of great relevance, interest, and value to lay readers as well as scholars and specialists.

The image accompanying the article has been changed.

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