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India needs a lively debate on internet technologies

comment Updated: Jan 17, 2015 07:10 IST
Hindustan Times
Islamic State

Governments despair over the way in which terrorists use technology adeptly. The Islamic State (IS) runs a sophisticated social media campaign to recruit fighters and wage a propaganda war against the West. The group’s sympathisers took control of the YouTube and Twitter accounts of the US military’s Central Command this week. Intelligence agencies are now up against two challenges: Citizens across the world demand more privacy in an Edward Snowden era, thus forcing service providers like Google, Facebook and Twitter to attend to users’ concerns, lest they (eventually) move to competitive platforms. And encryption technology is getting more ubiquitous. Some phone models are already encrypted by default while popular messaging services like WhatsApp are switching to end-to-end encryption making it difficult to tap into user conversations. The head of the UK’s surveillance agency, GCHQ, vented his frustration with tech companies in November when he characterised them as “the command and control networks of choice” for terrorists.

British Prime Minister David Cameron prompted an uproar this week by when he declared that intelligence agencies should have the legal power to break into encrypted communications of suspected terrorists. His remarks were construed as a call for a ban on encryption and elicited a wave of criticism. Analysts point out that such plans not only undermine free speech severely but they will effectively end online shopping and banking. What Mr Cameron is essentially aiming for is the cooperation of service providers like Google and Facebook to enable ‘back doors’ so that governments can intercept users when needed. He is reportedly lobbying Washington to put pressure on US technology giants. A leading tech expert has pointed out that technological back doors not only allow governments into private spaces but also spies and criminals.

Western governments, however, seem committed to getting around the problem of encryption. EU’s interior ministers want Internet providers “to create the conditions of a swift reporting of material that aims to incite hatred and terror...” Many have objected to this on the grounds that governments expect private service providers to not only infringe privacy but effectively do the job of the state. These important debates are germane to India which sees infringement of individual liberties in the wake of a resurgent strong state. The government’s policy-making in this area must be consultative and transparent to avoid controversies over privacy in the future, which can have unsettling political effects.

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