Indians could take some lessons from US citizens who are fierce about their right to cyber privacy.
An annual event called Computers, Freedom and Privacy (CFP) in the United States has had its share of drama in the past. In the early 1990s, one of the attendees was John Draper, a legendary hacker who was arrested in 1972 for popularising a system of making illegal telephone calls by dint of a whistle. (Draper had begun his endeavour with a free whistle found in a Captain Crunch cereal box, which accounted for his later hacker handle â€˜Captain Crunchâ€™.) In CFP 2002, there was the mock arrest of Edward Felten, a Princeton computer scientist, for presenting a paper that focussed on a way around a technology used to protect digital copyrights.
Such theatrics were missing at the May 2008 CFP held at a hotel in Connecticut, adjacent to the charming Yale University campus. The crowd was eclectic: geeks, lawyers, Hollywood scriptwriters, forensic science auditors, and earnest Indian professors teaching at American universities. The central theme of the conference was the need to find a common thread on government data collection, network neutrality, intellectual property and patents.
India did figure in the discussion, albeit in a not-so-positive light. When Rob Faris, research director at the Berkman Center at Harvard, invited questions from the audience after his presentation on the state of internet freedom, a man asked him what he felt about the Indian governmentâ€™s move to pressurise BlackBerry makers to provide Indian security agencies with a way around encrypted data. Faris smiled and dodged the question: the Indian governmentâ€™s demand was a policy matter, he demurred, and not related to the internet. But the question evoked many murmurs among the whoâ€™s who of the internet world. Did the Indian government really want to intercept the data of mobile users and monitor the internet, asked another member of the audience wonderingly.
The concept of mobile and computer privacy is something the western world takes very seriously. In India, on the other hand, anything goes, and the government is known to have intruded into almost every sphere of the communication world.
For the better part of May 2008, Indian home ministry officials continued to put pressure on Research in Motion (RIM), the Canadian wireless device company that makes BlackBerry, to provide security agencies with a way around its encryption.
The mandarins are demanding that RIM set up servers that can be monitored by Indian security agencies or give them a master key into data and e-mails sent from the companyâ€™s BlackBerry devices. The officialsâ€™ defence is that they are concerned that because these e-mails cannot be intercepted, militants could be using BlackBerry services to coordinate terrorist attacks. With BlackBerry categorically asserting that they are not the only one using the encrypted technology, matters are coming to a head.
Unlike many countries in Europe and in Scandinavia, the Indian Constitution does not expressly recognise the right to privacy, although Article 21 does state that no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by the law. According to the Privacy and Human Rights manual published by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Section 69 of Indiaâ€™s Information Technology Act, 2000, allows for the interception of any information transmitted through computer resources and requires that users disclose encryption keys or face a jail sentence of up to seven years. Section 44 imposes stiff penalties on anyone who fails to provide information to authorities. Section 80 allows a deputy superintendent of police to conduct searches and seize suspects in public spaces without a warrant.
Thereâ€™s more. The Act provides for censoring information on the internet on grounds of public morality and also imposes strict penalties for involvement in electronic publishing of material deemed â€˜obsceneâ€™ by the government. Itâ€™s another matter that the Bangalore-based techie, Lakshmana Kailash K, who spent 50 days behind bars last year for allegedly uploading obscene material on Shivaji had no clue what he was being held for and charged with.
Contrast this with the American spirit. At CFP â€˜08, there were sessions where representatives of Barack Obama and John McCain were grilled on their stands with regard to the internet, freedom and security (Hillary Clintonâ€™s rep didnâ€™t make it). Although both the Obama and McCain reps made pious statements about how McCain and Obama were committed to protecting internet privacy in the USA, a question on Yahoo and Google (both American companies) sharing information with the Chinese government had them stumped and quickly mouthing platitudes on how there was â€œa need for dialogueâ€™â€™.
India, though, can seek some comfort from the fact that China came in for harsh criticism for its sledgehammer tactics to curtail internet freedom. Indeed, India is miles behind China when it comes to containing internet freedom. â€œEven as China grappled with the massive earthquake that killed more than 55,000 people, the Chinese governmentâ€™s internet censors were on the job,â€™â€™ said Robert Dietz, the Asia programme coordinator for the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists. â€œThe central propaganda department never stopped handing down directives, never stopped telling people how much to report.â€™â€™
Indeed, the number of nations monitoring their citizens is steadily growing. According to Faris, there were only two governments filtering the net in 2002â€”the number has gone up to two dozen in a matter of six years. His presentation had a map that showed how social filteringâ€”for pornography, gamblingâ€”is far more widespread than political filtering. However, an overlapping diagram of who filters what showed a lot of â€˜mission creepâ€™, a term that refers to the expansion of a project or mission beyond its original goals. TNN