Tuesday, June 21, 2011

EXTRA ORDINARY ISSUE ******The right to privacy


Pritish Nandy

Idon't use a Blackberry. My son and daughters do. I use the world's most boring phone, the one which has been left miles behind in the smartphone race. Once a much admired brand, Nokia now looks like a left behind. The Blackberry and the iPhone have won the popularity stakes. So why don't I use them instead?

My reasons are ridiculous. One: I find touch phones a bit sick. I love touching food and eating it with my fingers. I love touching beautiful women. But to caress a phone to make it respond to me is a bit unnerving at my age. I guess I'm plain old fashioned. I can't snog a robot, pet a tamagotchi or shag an iPad. My romances begin and end only with real people of the opposite sex. As for the Blackberry, I find it as exciting as Queen Latifah on steroids. It's simply much too much for me to handle. Plus, I like phones with great designs and the Blackberry doesn't quite fit that bill. It's dowdy, boring, unimaginative.

But why am I discussing phones here? No, it's not about phones stupid. It's about technology. The Blackberry uses a technology that allows you and me to talk to each other, share our little secrets, crack silly jokes, strike the odd deal, and say all those wonderfully inconsequential things to our friends and lovers that we don't want others to hear or know about. Our Constitution entitles us to this privacy. This is your and my right as Indian citizens. For years now, the Government has been trying every trick in the trade to eavesdrop on our conversations and often does so without us ever knowing. Even Cabinet Ministers and senior Opposition leaders have their phone chats listened in on. Why would they spare us? This means any petty Government official who has a bone to pick with you, whether it's for parking your car in front of his house or because his wife once smiled at you at a party and said hello, can instantly target you as a security risk or an anti-national.

The amount of raw data one must wade through to catch criminals through phone conversations or messaging is impossible to handle in a country as vast and talkative as ours where millions of people are constantly chatting away on their handsets in many languages, many dialects by voice, sms, emails, chat service and social networking sites. So if the intent is to catch criminals at random — terrorists, tax evaders, bribe takers — this is no way to do it. One can spend an entire lifetime listening to sick jokes, porn chats, astrological predictions, sales talk and couples squabbling without getting one piece of authentic, credible, actionable information that can nail a wrongdoer. In any case, intercepted phone chats are not exactly evidence that courts like to hear.

So what's the purpose of such snooping? What's this paranoia that drives us to pursue the dubious examples of Saudi Arabia and UAE (Bahrain too, one hears) to lean on RIM, the company that makes the Blackberry, to open up their security codes to Government scrutiny so that snooping becomes possible? Is it the argument of the State that the privacy of millions of Indian citizens should be made subservient to what it sees as national interest, which in this case is the right to snoop on everyone so that security concerns of the State are addressed? To my knowledge, no terrorist has ever been caught with a Blackberry. They use sat phones. And even if the Blackberry is banned or its encryption codes forced open by the Government by arm twisting RIM, there will be Skype and many more internet phone systems still open to criminals. By the time the Government gets down to banning those, new technologies will emerge. Terrorists and criminals are clever people. They are always one step ahead of the law.

So why ban the Blackberry? It will only hurt people like you and I who will now be sharing our private conversations with eager, State-hired eavesdroppers. What they will make out of such conversations we don't know. But what we do know are two things. One: The word privacy will vanish from our lexicon with every State agency listening on to everything we say and do. Two: More and more innocent people will be harassed by these agencies in their constant attempt to justify their snooping. Witch hunts will increase. Journalists, RTI activists, whistle blowers will be pre-empted, blackmailed, possibly even set up for a kill if they know too much. Is this is the kind of nation we want India to be, in the name of national security?
If RIM refuses to cave in, even I will switch over to the Blackberry to show my support for the cause of free speech, aesthetics be damned. Right now, the Blackberry has come to represent my right to privacy and I am not going to give it up so easily. Nor should you.

Views expressed by columnists in Bombay Times are their own, and not that of the paper .

Dear Friends : The emails are schedule to be posted in the blog and will sent to the group on various dates and time fixed. Instead of sending it on one day it is spread on various dates. 
regards. R R Makwana

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