Should Big Brother be watching you?

Should the Big Brother be watching you?

Beware, big brother is

watching you

By Roopen Roy Jul 12 2011

Tags: Op-ed

The head of a Western nation, so the story goes, was on a state visit to the Soviet Union at the h­eight of the cold war. As a ma­rk of respect and honour, he and his wife were lodged at the West Wing of the Grand Kremlin Palace, which used to be the imperial family’s private chambers. The couple were o­verwhelmed by the hospitality and the opulence of the living quarters. The head of the state held his wife’s hands and whispered, “It is so wonderful, what more can we wish for?” His wi­fe said even more softly, “ How delightful it would have been if we could drink champagne accompanied by some beluga caviar.” Within 15 minutes a liveried waiter with white gloves kn­ocked on the door with two glasses, a bottle of Dom Pér­ignon and a generous helping of the finest sturgeon roe from the Caspian Sea.

The couple were very impressed with Soviet hospitality and the desire of the hosts to fulfil their every wish. They were, however, left with no doubt about the sophisticated information system that was required to support such exquisite levels of guest service.

George Orwell in his political fiction Nineteen Eighty- Four wrote about pervasive go­vernment surveillance, th­ou­ght police and incessant public mind control. Way ba­ck in 1948, when Orwell wr­ote the novel, he displayed rema­rk­able prescience about h­ow advances in technology wo­uld be abused to invade the privacy of citizens. Here is the dreaded passage where Orwell pa­ints a dystopian state:

“With the development of television, and the technical advance which made it possible to receive and transmit simultaneously on the same instrument, private life came to an end. Every citizen, or at least every citizen important enough to be worth watching, could be kept for 24 hours a day under the eyes of the police and in the sound of official propaganda, with all other channels of communication closed. The possibility of enforcing not only complete obedience to the will of the State, but complete uniformity of opinion on all subjects, now existed for the first time.”

Nineteen Eighty-Four depicts through the eyes of Winston Smith, the life in a totalitarian state where the citizen has no privacy not even to love or think. The untramme­lled and uncontrolled state power tramples the rights of citizens and civil society. The dreaded words are: Big Brother is wat­ching you.

In recent times, hacking of mailboxes and tapping of ph­ones have raised many troubling questions about the citizen’s right to privacy and a limit to the powers of the state to track its citizens. Routinely, ag­encies have been usurping sw­eeping powers for electronic eavesdropping. Sometimes, co­nversations are recorded and leaked to the media. The alleged conversation between a politician and a Bollywood actress may add grist to the mill of salacious gossip but does it serve a useful public purpose? Is it fair play in a de­mocracy to misuse administrative powers and eavesdrop on people who profess divergent beliefs in politics or economic policies?

India needs a tough legislation on privacy that balances the rights of citizens with the obligations of the state. I have heard my friends in law enforcement and civil service argue that if the powers of the law enforcement agencies to tap phones and hack e-mailboxes are taken away, then they will not be able to control terrorism, drug dealing, money laundering and crimes. The a­rgument is puerile. No sensible citizen would oppose electronic surveillance for fighting cr­imes if there are sensible safeguards and oversights. But no one will condone an indiscriminate and unbridled use of su­ch powers with complete disregard to the rights to privacy of the citizens.

It has been widely reported in the media that in one of the states, the Criminal Investigation Department and Intelligence Branch had tapped hu­ndreds of cell phones in violation of existing rules. According to existing rules in that st­ate, no phone can be tapped without the permission of the home secretary and unless there is a specific criminal ch­arge against its owner. A letter of permission issued by the home secretary has to be sent to the service provider so that it allows the police to intercept calls to a phone. As recently as last we­ek, a major scandal became the breaking news in Britain. Ironically, th­is time, a section of the me­dia itself is in the eye of the storm. The Ne­ws of the World scandal is be­ing called Hackergate harking back to the dark days of the Nixon era. It has resulted in unprecedented public anger. News International, the parent company of the 168-year-old tab­loid, owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, announced that previous Sunday’s edition (10th July) would be the last. Andy Coulson, the former director of communications of British prime minister David Cam­eron was arrested over allegations that he authori­sed cash payments of arou­nd $160,000 to police in return for stories, for phone hacking and illegal interception of communications.

It is time that the government and civil society in India woke up to the need of protecting the privacy and rights of its citizens against the intrusions and unjustified communication intercepts. If we pass a tough but balanced privacy legislation, the foundations of our democracy will be fortified and not weakened.

(The writer is managing director of Deloitte Consulting, India. These are his personal views)