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Need for legislation against human surveillance growing
Monday January 6, 2014 11:04 AM, Syed Ali Mujtaba,

The order by the Union Cabinet to probe into the alleged snooping on a young woman by Gujarat Police in 2009 at the behest of former state home minister Amit Shah has triggered a debate over surveillance of individual and has also raised moral, ethical and legal questions surrounding it.

The commission of inquiry that is approved by the cabinet will look into the "physical/electronic surveillance" in Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Delhi that has taken place "allegedly without authorization" and this commission is supposed to submit a report to the government in three months.

The snooping issue came into focus after two investigative news portals -Cobrapost and Gulail - claimed that then Gujarat Home Minister Amit Shah has ordered the illegal surveillance of a woman architect at the behest of Narender Modi for being close to an IAS officer having grouse with the Chief Minister.

Recently, released a set of 39 new tapes, purportedly of telephonic conversations which, it said, showed that the alleged illegal surveillance of the lady architect occurred even beyond Gujarat.

This incident has come to lime light on the heels of BJP's leader Arun Jaitley's allegation that his phone was allegedly tapped and he wanted immediate action against individuals allegedly trying to access his call detail records CDRs etc.

These two incidents are just tip of the iceberg on the issue surveillance that has global connotations now. Surveillance is monitoring of the behavior, activities, or information, usually of people for the purpose of influencing, managing, directing, or protecting them.

The effects of surveillance have positive as well as negative aspects. Surveillance is very useful to governments and law enforcement to maintain social control, recognize and monitor threats, and prevent criminal activity.

On the other hand, it severely triggers the privacy and freedom of an individual. Many civil rights and privacy groups have expressed concern that by allowing surveillance of citizens; we may end up in a mass surveillance society, with extremely limited personal freedom.

Surveillance of communications is ubiquitous, and it severely undermines citizens' ability to enjoy a private life, freely express and enjoy the fundamental human rights. There are many ways of surveillance.

Computer surveillance involves the monitoring of data and traffic on the Internet. Google, the world's most popular search engine scans the content of emails of users of its Gmail web mail service, to create targeted advertising based on what people are talking about in their personal Emails. This definitely hampers the private affairs of users and creates moral, ethical and legal insecurity as it violates the right to privacy, a basic human right.

The official and unofficial tapping of telephone lines is widespread. Mobile phones are also commonly used to collect location data. The geographical location of a mobile phone that a person carrying it can be easily determined even when the phone is not used. This can be done, using a technique known as multilateration, to calculate the differences in time for a signal to travel from the cell phone to each of several cell towers near the owner of the phone. The legality of such techniques of surveillance has been questioned.

Video cameras are also used for surveillance which serves the purpose of observing a particular area. The development of centralized networks of CCTV cameras watching public areas, linked to computer databases of people's pictures and identity are able to track people's movements, and identify whom they have been with. The Civil rights groups have argued that it present a risk to civil liberties.

Another common form of surveillance is to create maps of social networks based on data from social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter etc. It is from such social network sites, personal interests, friendships and affiliations, beliefs, activities and thoughts are extracted out by those indulging in acts of surveillance. Each of these acts threatens both an individual's freedom of expression and their right to maintain a private life and private communications.

Declining costs of technology and data storage have created incentives for conducting surveillance. New technologies have been adopted and surveillance techniques have proliferated. This has enabled deep intrusion into an individual's private areas, threatening to blur the line of demarcation between the private and the public spheres. Individuals are no longer able to even know that they have been subjected to surveillance.

Edward Joseph Snowden, an American computer specialist, a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee, and former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor disclosed classified NSA documents to several media outlets, initiating the NSA leaks, which reveal operational details of a global surveillance apparatus operated by the United States working with its Five Eyes partners. According to Snowden, his "sole motive" for leaking the documents was "to inform the public that what is being done in their name is done against them."

There has been growing concern that society is moving towards a state of mass surveillance with severely limited personal, social, political freedoms. Some point to the blurring of lines between public and private places, and the privatization of places traditionally seen as public (such as shopping malls and industrial parks) as illustrating the increasing legality of collecting personal information.

In addition to its obvious function of identifying and capturing individuals who are committing undesirable acts, surveillance also functions to create in everyone a feeling of always being watched, so that they become self-policing. This allows the State to control the populace without having to resort to physical force, which is disgusting. Numerous civil rights groups and privacy groups are opposing surveillance as a violation of people's right to privacy.

Generally, legislation has not kept pace with the changes in technology, creating gaps that deprive individuals of protection and allow for the extra-legal use of surveillance. Thus legal safeguards have to be rolled out to check such unethical practices of surveillance by the government or any other organization.

In such legislation the centrality of the right to privacy to democratic principles and the free flow of speech and ideas must be emphasized.

Privacy and free expression go hand in hand, each an essential prerequisite to the enjoyment of the other. To freely form and impart ones political, religious or ethical beliefs one needs an autonomous, private space free from interference, from the government, private sector or other citizens.

Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at

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