Sunday Spotlight: 'Surveillance is the anti-thesis of freedom'

Sunday Spotlight: 'Surveillance is the anti-thesis of freedom'

The fear of India becoming a surveillance state is growing in the country. Privacy of a citizen appears to be in peril. Dr Reetika Khera, Associate Professor (Economics and Public Systems) at IIM-Ahmedabad, spoke to DH’s Shemin Joy on the government’s move and fears it creates.

Why should one be worried about the government intruding into the lives of a private citizen?

The clearest answer to this question in recent times has come from Edward Snowden. The right to privacy is nothing but freedom of speech. He said, “Saying you don't care about privacy because you have nothing to hide is like saying you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say.” 

Are we just scared and overreacting or is Aadhaar a real threat?

Arguing against Aadhaar in the Supreme Court in 2017, senior advocate Arvind Datar had said “Darkness does not come all at once. It is in the twilight that we must be most vigilant, or we are lost.” I do not think that we are over-reacting; if anything we have had a delayed reaction.

Yet I do not think it is too late. For example, in 2002 the Vajpayee government passed a wholly inadequate ‘Freedom of Information Act’. Through public pressure, consensus-building and other democratic means, in 2005 it was replaced by a much stronger law, the Right to Information (RTI) Act. In other countries too, as public awareness about the problems associated with national IDs (e.g., Australia in the 80s or UK in the 2000s) grew, governments had to withdraw the proposals in response to public pressure.

The main threat arises from the coercive and ubiquitous use of Aadhaar. The coercion is necessary because, contrary to the government’s assertion, Aadhaar is a nuisance for ordinary people and brings next to no benefits to them. In most welfare applications it is ‘pain without gain’. If everything works smoothly, people will be left where they were before. What is more likely is that something goes wrong: enrolment, linking, authentication, there can be errors at any of these three stages. In one such case, it led to the death of an 11-year old girl, Santoshi, in Jharkhand. Her family’s ration card was cancelled as a ‘bogus’ because they had been unable to link Aadhaar.

Who benefits from Aadhaar? 

The Aadhaar project is a marriage of corporate and state power. The state benefits because this allows it to concentrate power in its hands; corporations benefit from the commercial potential from mining our personal information (what and where we eat, what we buy, how we travel etc). The commercial interests became evident when a handful of them approached the Supreme Court in the Aadhaar case pleading for the project to continue for the sake of their businesses. 

The argument is that it helps in addressing grave national security issues, helps in identifying the needy, to understand people's needs and act on it. Is it so?

The question we should ask the government is how will Aadhaar help address national security issues, or understand people’s needs better, or act on them better. How will Aadhaar help in identifying the ‘needy’? Can your date of birth or your biometrics help government identify your needs or improve the quality of services? UIDAI claims that they are ‘blind’, they collect very little information. If so, then the answer is that Aadhaar is redundant insofar as these issues are concerned. If not, and the government is collecting and collating data from different sources, it is enhancing its capabilities for profiling, tracking and surveillance. Either way, Aadhaar is a problematic project. It is a way of diverting attention from the real issues.

Are we entering a surveillance state with Aadhaar, government social media monitoring hubs and even chips of TV sets? 

Every day one hears about new uses that governments and corporations want to put these technologies to monitoring behaviour of citizens in China through its social crediting system (e.g., do they jaywalk, pay bills on time etc) to grade and rank citizens, drones being taught to spot violent behaviour in crowds, etc. One certainly gets the sense of coming closer to living in the dystopic world of Black Mirror (a must watch BBC/Netflix series).

Throughout history, States have used whatever tools of control that are at their disposal. The new technologies, including social media, have afforded an unprecedented opening to the state to escalate such control. Therefore, I am not surprised that states try to concentrate power in its hands, to discipline and control people. What is surprising and disappointing is that we learn so little from history. 

One of the proposals is to have a social media monitoring hub that can help "moulding public perception in a positive manner for the country" and inculcate "nationalistic feelings" in masses. How do you see it?

The new technologies that have taken our lives by storm receive a lot of good press. In fact, there is a dark side to these technologies (including their use in weapons), which is only now beginning to get some attention. These technologies are double-edged – they have a democratizing potential, but they also have the potential to concentrate power. 

The social crediting system in China is the scariest example of the misuse of such technological tools. But that is China - in India, we pride ourselves on being a vibrant democracy. What is shocking is that these technologies of social and political control are being allowed (even welcomed, by some) in India, in spite of being a democracy.

Is it right that there is an overdrive by the Narendra Modi government? What do you think are the reasons?

Recall that the same BJP and Modi who were vehemently opposed to the Aadhaar project when they were the Opposition, embraced it as soon as they came to power. This tells us something very important about the project – anyone in power loves it. This is about as strong a signal as one can get about the potential for control, tracking, profiling and surveillance that the Aadhaar project affords. 

The coercive imposition of Aadhaar in the Public Distribution System (PDS) is one of the clearest signs of the “anti-poor” nature of this government. The PDS is plagued by many problems – e.g., quantity fraud or overcharging, but Aadhaar is not the solution to any of them. Yet the central government is forcing the states to use Aadhaar based biometric authentication (ABBA) in the PDS - even though its use has resulted in close to ten deaths in Jharkhand; even though better technologies are available (e.g., smart cards in Tamil Nadu and Himachal Pradesh. 

In “Automating Inequality” on welfare in the US, Virginia Eubanks suggests that as disadvantaged groups won legal rights to welfare, the political response was to unleash such technologies that would work to wearying out those who would assert their hard-won rights. This is definitely one possible way to think about the enthusiasm of this government with respect to the use of Aadhaar in welfare even though there is no demonstrable gain from doing so.

Is our development paradigm lopsided with this sort of surveillance state?

Development and surveillance just cannot go together. Development means freedom. Surveillance, on the other hand, is the antithesis of freedom.