Updated: Sep 23, 2020
— By Esha Gupta
“Always eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you. Asleep or awake, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or bed — no escape. Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres in your skull.” – George Orwell, 1984
When people protested against the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) [later, Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA)] in India in December, 2019, the BJP government attempted to subdue the growing feeling of revolution along with the “spreading of incorrect information” via the banning of the internet connection; when a citizen of London (who shall remain unnamed to protect his privacy) hid his face from road-side facial-recognition cameras, he was fined for disorderly conduct.
Written during the harsh years that followed World War II, George Orwell, a socialist believed that the democracy of Great Britain would not live through this post-war period and, with Animal Farm in 1945 and 1984 in 1949, started writing about what he deemed to be the future of politics in the Great Britain.
Written as a Political-Fiction novel, 1984 introduced the words “Double-Think,” “Crime-Thought” and “Big Brother,” depicting the absolute, totalitarian and oppressive regime of the Ingsoc ideology. With the phrase “Big Brother is Watching You”, first used in the 1949 novel, becoming increasingly popular to describe several governments in recent times, could it be that 1984 was in fact not just a political fiction, but a much dreaded prediction; and “Crime-Thought” did not exist only in the novel, but is being practiced by the citizens of the 21st century as well?
The Xinjiang region of northwest China, home to the 800,000-2 million Muslim minority, including Uighurs, Kazaks and Uzbeks, is considered to be the most heavily surveilled and policed area on Earth. Detention camps, the size of 140 football fields, were found housing around 1.5 million detainees wherein they were supposedly given vocational education and taught about the Chinese laws and language that helped Chinese officials to “nip terrorism in the bud.”
However, refugees from these camps describe prison-like conditions: starvation, sleep deprivation, sexual abuse. Detainees were forced to renounce Islam and pledge loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP); cameras and microphones monitored every movement made and every syllable uttered.
Life outside the camps isn’t any better. Villages, with the help of a “grid management system” are divided into squares of 500 inhabitants each; a police station in each square tenaciously monitors every inhabitant with regular identification checks, fingerprint scanning, arbitrary photographs and erratic cell phone checks. Biometric data and information from facial-recognition cameras are stored and used by the CCP to curate a list of “suspicious people.” A document released by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in November, 2019 disclosed that 15,000 Uighur Muslims were peremptorily arrested based on the results of this algorithm.
State-sponsored spying does not end at authoritarian countries like China. The United States of America under National Security Agency’s (NSA) PRISM program; other first-world countries like France, United Kingdom, Germany have all been found to be tapping into live conversations: phone calls, emails, and SMSs, going in and out of their countries. They invest in ‘Safe Cities’ to collect real-time data, facial recognition cameras and ‘Smart Policing’ that collects information on people’s geographical location, arrest history, biometric data and social media feeds through open backdoors in media companies like Facebook and Google, amongst others.
India, too, is increasingly becoming a concern to privacy experts, as the central government is getting ready to install facial recognition cameras on the streets of the country. Although facial recognition cameras can, in fact, be of aid to the government in identifying criminals and missing persons, they breach the privacy of the rest of the citizens by forcing them to be an open book on the grid by keeping a string of their personal data available at a click.
The Aadhaar Identification System of 2009 has been subject to massive controversy, being one of the largest sources of biometric data collection linked to one’s transactions, insurances, bank accounts, etc. With every citizen’s fingerprints, eye-scan, contact details and a unique identification number (UIN) being stored in a poorly-secured government system, the entire country becomes substantially vulnerable to hackers and the ‘terrorists’ that the government is trying to keep away.
Furthermore, while SMSs are already known to be vulnerable and easily accessible to the government and various Internet Service Providers (ISP), the Indian government is trying to move one step forward by trying to get Facebook-owned Whatsapp to get their messages to become traceable using a digital footprint on each message; this will happen by removing the ‘end-to-end encryption’ facility provided to users, and will completely defeat the point of privacy and “personal conversations.”
Although the average layperson is not perturbed by this inappropriately legal state surveillance, claiming it is only done for their benefit and that it does not harm them in any way since they have nothing illicit to hide; it does, in fact, harm each and every person. Even if the above-mentioned privacy aspect is considered secondary, state-surveillance fuels a dangerous death of democracy. Governments become more authoritative, impose laws and regulations to such an extent that they start to control citizens’ thoughts, opinions and further, decide which ones “deserve” representation. They start propagating their beliefs and ideologies and might even adjudge any difference in stance or thinking as “anti-national.”
Soon, the definition of “right” or “wrong”, “lawful” or “unlawful” as we know it may change. It’s a possibility that consequently, in such a scenario, we may be compelled to believe in a certain way, to simply fit in with society, or otherwise be branded as revolutionary or a rebel
Nonetheless, the trade-off still prevails. Where must the government draw a line in state surveillance? How far should the citizens of such a country be subjugated to it? While there can be no clear answer that adheres to the preferences of both the sides, especially in a country like India, considering its large population, inspiration can be taken from the European Union’s (EU) ‘General Data Protection Act’ (GDPR). While this act does not directly deal with state surveillance, governments of all 28 EU countries, by adopting the GDPR, put restrictions on how much personal and sensitive data companies are allowed to collect and share; this includes taking the consent of citizens before collecting information about them, whilst also allowing an easy access to this information.
Furthermore, companies with more than 250 employees are also required to provide a justification for holding this data, for how long it is being kept, and what security measures have been taken for their protection. Failure to comply with the rules set by the GDPR can lead to companies being harshly fined or penalised. Besides this, certain countries like Ireland have been going a step further to protect data by starting investigations into companies suspected or found to be breaching information.
Thus, with growing privacy and security concerns — or perhaps, with a growing belief in an authoritarian ideology, the majority of the countries are showing a slow shift towards a state of surveillance and spying, and a trend where it is supposedly normal for the government to have eyes and ears in every device, every streets, and perhaps, if we are moving towards a 1984-like situation, then in every household.