Cyber snooping needs code of conduct

There was a time when I used to get emails from Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, the banned Pakistan-based terrorist outfit. I was at that time in Reuters, and global news agencies are used to such communication. The address was — located in the servers of Hotmail, founded by Sabeer Bhatia, son of an Indian army officer.

So, it surprised me least last week when I heard of the PRISM project of the US  government snooping in on Gmail, Facebook and the like.

In fact, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) even has a venture capital arm that invested  in Stratify, an "e-discovery" startup founded by IIT, Delhi alumnus Rakesh Mathur, whose original claim to fame was co-founding that Amazon acquired. Stratify (whose original name was Purple Yogi) essentially involved high-intelligence software whose job is essentially to snoop and derive extra pattern insights into behaviour -- be it of a consumer or a militant or plain documents.

Stratify got acquired by information management firm Iron Mountain for $158 million (R900 crore at current rates) in 2007, and Hotmail's estimated $400 million buyout by Microsoft is legendary. Rakesh and Sabeer need to wonder if the technologies they created were used against the country of their origin in favour of their adopted homeland.

India ranks in 5th in the list of Washington’s most snooped nations. That is not surprising because India is a key trading partner and stratetegic ally in Asia.

Spying, interception of letters and vigilance on streets is an old military habit, and cyber snooping on emails and social media is just a modern day variation of the old game. However, the similiarities end there. Internet data can be copied and cached easily, and this increases the risk of content falling into the wrong hands -- and this can result in violation of privacy, blackmailing or worse.

Cyber games are here to stay. Cyber warfare, cyber snooping and hacking are par for the course.  However, sensitive governments concerned about the welfare of their citizens frame real guidelines so that the people it protects do not have a chance to complain of any infringement of their fundamental rights. What we need is a transparent code of conduct for security agencies.

Big Brother should be protective not intrusive.


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