There is a major issue that most people, including activists in India have not given as much attention as it merits. That issue is of surveillance of ordinary people, especially within offices, gated societies, campuses and in some cases even independent houses. The use of electronic devices for surveillance is far more widespread than the occasionally reported phone tapping cases. Potentially, and I think in reality too, this is hampering all kind of normal activities that people can indulge in, including acts of dissidence and protest, which I think are the special target of such practices. It has come to the point where any kind of protest activity in India is being ‘nipped in the bud’, at least in urban areas. This is making all the talk about there being democracy in India a joke.
Whether or not I am wrong in saying the above, there is sufficient evidence about the potential and real misuse of surveillance devices. This is part of a worldwide trend that has intensified in the last ten years and many such cases have been reported in various countries, including by the mainstream media, which usually avoids such topics these days. One concrete, practical action that can be taken in this regard is to demand information about this under the Right to Information Act. Since I am not competent enough to do this on my own and I have no contacts of any sort whose help I can take, I challenge (or appeal, whichever way you like to see it) the RTI activists to demand this information from the government as well as corporations.
I list below some specific points which I think should form the basis for such a demand. I only write them down here as rough indicators.
- Has the government sanctioned the use of electronic surveillance devices against ordinary people? It yes, who gives authorisation in specific cases and on what basis? What guidelines are followed? Who verifies that these guidelines are followed? Is there any mechanism through which the targeted person can ask for justification for any such surveillance?
- Are these devices being used in hotels, hostels, campuses and offices? What safeguards are there against their misuse? Who looks after this? On what basis are these places identified? Are they also being used in independent houses? If yes, what are the details?
- Are local administrators or managers or private security agencies allowed to make their own policies regarding this, ignoring any consideration for privacy of individuals? What is the mechanism through which information can be obtained about this and how can any redressal be sought?
- Are there any constraints about sharing the information collected through these means? Who decides about such things? Has it become a complete free for all where any administrator or manager or private security company can collect and disseminate such information?
- What is the role of IT companies in this, especially outsourcing companies such as TCS, Wipro, Infoys, who have huge numbers of employees, many of whom at any given time are not engaged in productive work? Are these employees being involved in unauthorised and illegal surveillance on ordinary people? What are the details about this, how can they be obtained? If this is happening, does the government know about it and was this officially sanctioned by the government?
- Is the information (or any falsified/distorted version of it) collected through surveillance (by whichever agency) being used for punitive purposes against people who are seen to be (rightly or wrongly, with justification or without justification) indulging in some kind of dissidence activity such as opposing the policies of privatisation and corporatisation of everything? If yes, what is the legal basis for this?
- Is such information being used to disrupt services such as Internet access and electricity supply for people who are being targeted by the surveillance policies?
- Is such information being used to launch smear campaigns against people seen as opposed to the official or corporate policies?
- Is such information being used to generally “make life impossible” (as one think tank writer proudly mentioned in one of his articles: on a dissident media website, no less) for the targeted people?
- Is such information being given to shopkeepers, hair dressers etc., with the instructions to not provide proper services (or deny providing services) to the targeted people?
- Is such information being used to ensure that the targeted people are denied jobs that they apply for? Is it being used to form a kind of (formal or informal) blacklist for employment and related purposes? Is it also being used to create hindrances in the work of these people, if they do get a job.
- What is extent of the use of surveillance of any kind in academics? What is the purpose of such surveillance? Are students being involved in such activities as developers, system administrator and informers in general? What are the details of surveillance related projects sanctioned by the government specifically for academic institutions?
- To what extent are the communications service providers being used for surveillance, whether for the government or for corporations or for any other organisations?
- Does the government know about the use of surveillance devices by the large right-wing organisations and corporations/institutions sympathetic to them? If yes, have any steps being taken to stop this? Has there been any investigation into this?
- In case the answer to most of the questions above is negative, is there any mechanism to take action in case evidence is made available that would indicate that the answer to at least a few of these questions may be affirmative?
I have written the above only as initial notes. These can be refined and improved and extended. I would welcome any suggestions.
Full Disclosure: I am writing this as a person who believes that he has been a target of such practices for the last many years, although I don’t even claim to have indulged in much protest of any major significance. I am writing this almost as a last resort, having tried to ignore this issue for a long time, hoping that it would cease in due course. I don’t know what else I can do about this. Please note that being part of the ‘IT community’ in India, I am both more prone to it and also more likely to notice it.
I know how some people are going to react to it, but unless I thought it absolutely necessary (a matter of life and death), I wouldn’t have written it. I am generally not given to stick my head out easily, though I do try to call a spade a spade. I am no Bradley Manning. But I guess my head is already out.