Let us avoid the dangers that Wile E Coyote faces every time he races off a cliff and instead debate the ugly surveillance scandal that stares at us.
Remember that classical, yet slightly unnerving scene from The Road Runner Show where Wile E. Coyote would run off the edge of a cliff, ignoring the fact that he was no longer running on solid ground? That damned coyote would only fall down after he noticed that he was hanging over an abyss.
After the recent Guardian and Washington Post exposes, which detailed a wide dragnet of surveillance, is this not how the American and British public must feeling right now? They are aware, to a certain extent that their lives have changed, that everything is not rosy. The full impact of this incident for them, however, cannot be understood. And therefore they continue to fall, unsure of when the impact will click.
Are we, the rest of the world, in a similar state? Aren’t we all running on thin air at this point, unaware that we are no longer on solid ground? All it will take is a similar expose for us to look downwards and realize we too have run over the edge of a precipice.
But daddy, he's nude!
In some ways, to hardened tinfoil hat-wearing skeptics, these revelations were no secret. Why this has, perhaps, pushed some over the precipice can be answered from a lesson from a childhood fable. Recall that short tale by Hans Christian Andersen titled “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.
After the Emperor puts on his ‘new, invisible clothes’, that claims to be invisible to those who are incompetent or stupid, everyone compliments his clothes as they obviously do not wished to be judged as stupid. Therefore for some time the public and the Emperor can pretend to continue nothing is wrong.
When the child, however, sees the Emperor and cries out “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”, the pin drops. Now everybody is forced to confront the fact. The Guardian’s expose detailing the wide-ranging nature of electronic surveillance has similarly forced us to confront the ugly 'Hydra' that is the NSA.
This ongoing forced debate over privacy, which is bound to continue over the next few weeks as more revelations continue to tumble out, is a very important one. Why? Because I believe it is a debate that touches the very roots of an ordinary person’s ideology. Freedom of choice for instance: Should we have the right to privacy? Or should a certain amount of privacy be sacrificed at the altar of security?
It is a little disheartening, therefore, to see immediate discourse simultaneously condemning Obama to places worse than hell and on the other hand, deifying whistleblower Edward Snowden. Is the best we could come up with?
After all, let us not fall into that illusion which makes out Internet surveillance and tracking to be a Godzilla that has no physical (real-world) comparison. Every time you swipe your credit/debit card at a shopping mall you have left a trace that is/and can be tracked. Every time you go to a petrol bunk to fill up, you’re probably being watched by a video camera. We make trade-offs every day, sacrificing a little bit of our privacy for interacting with the everyday world.
The problem with such trade-offs has always been with what happens if the bank gives up your information, or if the petrol bunk gives its video surveillance to people who could abuse it and use it against you.
Let’s frame this debate in a slightly different way then: Should we expect law enforcement agencies, which are in lawful pursuit of criminals, to ignore a large digital trove of actionable information? To ignore digital tools of investigation? Or in other words, can the search and collection of non-personally identifiable metadata be used as a both a technique and as evidence for investigative purposes?
The debate also seems to casually side-step the rights of foreigners, why is it not a moral or an ethical issue if your Government is spying on foreign citizens? (The U.S Government’s main defense is that the PRISM programme is mainly used to spy on foreign nationals.)
If the Indian Government spies on Pakistani citizens, should the rights of Pakistanis be tossed aside as secondary to those of Indian citizens?
To make it clear, I am neither arguing for or against the above questions. My only point is that by demonizing the national security apparatus, we only put off these different aspects of the debate. As a global, public society, this debate has not happened. India, for instance, does not even have a Privacy Bill for the 21st century.
How soon we forget...
The tragedy of this situation, and the very reason that we find ourselves hurtling towards the ever-present precipice, is that in times of emotion and distress—we simply ignore this debate. Today seems like a good day to remind people that the original U.S Senate vote regarding the Patriot Act (which is the boulder that set this week’s events into motion) took place on October 24, 2001, a time when the wounds of the 9-11 attacks were still fresh.
Any Senator who voted against the Act was in danger of being labeled as anything from being ‘soft on terror’ to downright treasonous. The Act finally passed; the vote count was 98-1 with one abstention. Russ Feingold was the ONLY member of the US Senate to vote against. The State of Wisconsin voted him out last election cycle.
Can we not to see parallels of this incident in our own society? Recall November 26, 2008. People who switched on their TV that evening were shocked to see that unidentified gunmen had stormed the Taj and Oberoi Hotels in Mumbai.
As it happens, law enforcement agencies were also in for a shock when they learned that they could not tap into devices such as BlackBerry, which were conveniently being used by the terrorists. The CBI and RAW were forced to take the help of American law enforcement authorities to finally decrypt the communications.
Meanwhile, the Information Technology Bill that an expert committee had come up with a few months earlier was languishing, as was the norm with public policy.
The new Information Technology Act, with its amendments that came with legal e-surveillance, Section 66 A and the requisite dangerous power to deal with the Information Age’s challenges, was passed by Parliament without debate and within a month of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack.
Every time we are confronted with crisis, and put off the balancing of security and privacy in a constitutional context, we take a further step off the cliff and onto thin air.