Living in the panopticon: on mass surveillance

China is often pilloried in the West for the deep surveillance of its people. Latest reports indicate that the Chinese state, harnessing artificial intelligence, will soon have enough information to rate all its citizens for good behaviour, making everything from buying a train ticket to getting a credit card difficult, if not impossible, for those not conforming to rules of conduct set by the state.

It is naive to believe that mass surveillance is special to China or that it is a recent phenomenon. The extent to which the British had spied on Indian society and the systems they developed for that were brought out in detail by the late historian C.A. Bayly in his book, Empire & Information — Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780-1870. All countries monitor their citizens. The communist states did it through the 20th century. Anyone sifting through records of Stasi, former East Germany’s security agency, would be astonished to note the extent to which the state spied on its citizens.

In the past, surveillance was selective and targeted. India’s pre-Independence leaders were relentlessly followed by British intelligence. Little was missed of Subhas Chandra Bose’s time in Germany or Mahatma Gandhi’s in his ashrams. British agents filed detailed reports on Jawaharlal Nehru’s journeys and meetings through Europe.

It is one thing for citizens to be monitored by the state, but it is quite another to be ‘spied’ upon by the likes of Google, Facebook, Amazon and apps loaded onto cheap Chinese smartphones. Recently I was surprised to read transcripts of every command I had given to my Alexa speaker over the last few years; I am still trying to erase them all.

As one of the largest consumers of data, India is a goldmine for data aggregators. It’s the state’s duty not to make it easy for aggregators to collect data with impunity. India too needs something as strong as the General Data Protection Regulation, which was adopted by the European Union in 2018, and a willingness to enforce it, to protect the privacy of its citizens.

In the wake of suicide attacks and bombings worldwide, mass surveillance has assumed a new urgency. Almost all countries are going China’s way. Today we are all tracked 24x7 across places and devices. Unpleasant as it is, and even as all of us wish to be protected from overzealous governments, we need to get used to living in a global panopticon. It’s the price we must pay to safely walk on the street, watch a movie in a theatre or shop in the bazaar.

The writer, a former civil servant, taught public policy and contemporary history at IISc. Bengaluru

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Printable version | Mar 5, 2021 9:56:39 AM |

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