But you do want to spy on us, minister

But you do want to spy on us, minister

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The Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore’s statement in the Rajya Sabha that the government had no plan to intrude into the privacy of individuals through its proposed social media communication hubs is unconvincing and cannot be taken to be true. The decision to set up the hubs has been widely seen as a move to monitor and control the social media communications of individual citizens and groups of people and to influence people’s views through intervention and manipulation. Rathore told the House this week that the government only proposed to set up the system to “facilitate information flow regarding its policies and programmes through social media platforms, i.e., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc.’’ Common knowledge about the working of social media and the details about the government’s plan which are in the public realm give the lie to the minister’s statement. 

The ministry’s action disproves the minister’s words. Broadcast Engineering Consultants India Ltd., an arm of the ministry, floated a tender in April for supply of a software tool for the project. The tender specifies that the tool should have the ‘’capability to crawl the World Wide Web and social media to monitor and analyse and to gauge the sentiments among the netizens’’. It said that the tool should be able to monitor social media accounts and to help in understanding responses to messages, tweets, etc. The software would also be used to broadcast government messages “in a positive manner”, “to inculcate nationalist feelings’’ and for “predictive analysis’’. The users of social media would be profiled and “influencers’’ identified. The government plans to set up such monitoring centres in all 716 districts of the country. Along with social media platforms and local and regional media, personal communications like e-mails would also come under the scope of the activities of these centres, as per the government’s tender. 

If this is not intrusion into privacy, what is? Authoritarian governments adopt such surveillance methods to keep a watch on what people are saying and thinking. But they don’t accept or acknowledge it, and even give misleading and impressive names for the most dangerous projects, much like the ‘Ministry of Truth’ in Orwell’s 1984, which spreads falsehood. The government’s aims are very clear from the tender details, and the minister has misrepresented them in the Rajya Sabha. Even the Supreme Court has observed that a government that taps citizens’ communications is moving towards a surveillance state. Its uses for the government before the elections are obvious. The government must drop this ‘Big Brother’ project which violates the basic rights of citizens. It has no place in a democracy. 

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