Spy In The Room

Business Today|August 09, 2020

Spy In The Room
One of the most fundamental of our rights is the presumption that we are law-abiding citizens living in compliance with the law. State surveillance turns that on its head.
ABRAHAM C. MATHEWS

Just imagine a new device in your living room — a camera, installed by any of the big global technology giants. But this one doesn’t take instructions from you. It just silently sits there, quietly observing you go about your mundane daily activities. Occasionally it will remind you that you are going to be late for the office if you don’t leave now. It might ask you if the sofa cushions you just bought were comfortable, and even remind you to change it every now and then. If you fight with your spouse, it will suggest therapists you could meet; or even the number of an ambulance service, depending on the seriousness.

But it mostly just observes. It keeps track of the pages of the newspapers you are reading, the tone of your dinner table conversation, and the kind of friends you share a drink with. If it is witness to some criminal activity, it is mandated to inform the police. Needless to say, all of these are designed to make your life more comfortable, and arguably safer.

Would you be okay with such a device snooping on you all day (maybe a less intimidating version of the TV from the novel “1984”)? Most of us certainly wouldn’t. And yet, we seem to have invited global big tech companies to do the exact same thing, albeit through our phones and other gadgets.

Even as technology companies strive to hide the evidence of their snooping in dense legalese and non-denials whenever questioned, the government seems to have no such compunction. Take for example, the recently released draft Unmanned Aircraft System Rules, 2020, to govern drones. Section 35 of the Rules permit drones to take pictures after ensuring privacy of an individual or property. But there is not a whiff about what steps the drone operator would need to take so as to ensure privacy.

Questions also abound about the data collection practices of the Aarogya Setu app. With the government not releasing the source code of the server, we simply don’t know what information the government is collecting, storing, and evaluating.

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August 09, 2020