Privacy vs security

The row between the home ministry and Research in Motion (RIM), the Canadian company that provides Blackberry phones and services, involves the old issue of the right to privacy of citizens and the imperatives of national security which the state is duty-bound to protect.

In the Blackberry context the controversy actually highlights the limits of privacy rather than the intrusion of government into private space. The company was given a deadline to reveal the encryption code which will help the security agencies to monitor the encrypted Blackberry e-mail and instant messaging services used by Indian subscribers.

The government has since then made it clear that it wants access to the encryption codes of Google and Skype also. It is known that terrorists widely use high technology for their operations, as it became clear during the Mumbai attack, and therefore the security agencies should be in a position to monitor their activities.

While the primacy of national security should not be disputed, the need to increase safeguards against misuse of the surveillance mechanism is also equally important. These safeguards are legally inadequate at present, as the executive rather the judiciary can approve an eavesdropping action. If a citizen’s right to privacy has been violated for wrong and extraneous reasons he should be entitled to relief and the officials responsible for the wrong actions should be held accountable for them.

The company is under pressure from some other countries also to comply with their security demands. Of the 460 lakh Blackberry users in the world, 11 lakh are in India. It is a growing market and the company will not be able to ignore it. It has reportedly agreed to give partial access to its messenger services and allow complete access to  the security establishment by the end of the year.

It is not impossible to arrive at a full compromise based on the best commercial and ethical principles. But the government should also not have been in the position to request or coerce companies or others to part with procedures or information.

There are many countries which have the technology and the infrastructure to carry out effective surveillance. India too should develop these capabilities. The technical knowledge and the skilled personnel required to put in place an effective cyber surveillance system are available in the country.

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