As we write this, we hear of stuff that seems like comic books come true. Larry Page, CEO of Internet search giant Google’s parent Alphabet Inc, has apparently invested in two startups that want to make flying cars. What next? Electronic magic carpets? Truth is indeed stranger than fiction, but there is a serious side to gee-whiz achievements. So it is not surprising that the Home Ministry has declined permission to Google’s Street View project in India on security grounds. The controversial project has given rise to contrasting worries in the US and India. American privacy activists have cried foul because Street View’s panoramic cameras aimed at capturing details of public spaces in cities to help easy navigation have ended up showing sunbathers and street-kissers. In India, where terror threats loom from across the border, the thought of someone remote having a ready reckoner on its busy urban zones is chilling. So we have to say: “Sorry Google, we are not yet ready for all of your cool tech.” The government understandably wants Google to wait for a year or two and pass the planned Geospatial Information Regulation Bill, which will enable restricted publishing of details of the kind Street View aims for.
Policing a private project of Street View scale can be painful and expensive. Given Google’s ambitions to share all kinds of information generously, we have to say it gets tricky in a world where zealots and deviants can cause havoc. Technology is not intent-neutral and regulators have no alternative but to try and impose reasonable restrictions on inventions that pose potential threats. The 26/11 attacks in November 2008 in Mumbai showed the meticulous detail with which terrorists had planned the assault on the Taj Mahal hotel and beyond. Now, imagine a scenario where attackers might have had a detailed view of the by-lanes nearby where an Ajmal Kasab could have run amok, inflicting even more damage than he did. Or think of a guided attack on defence installations.
It is wise to say that in the long run, technology wins – or other technologies emerge like antidotes to help check the side-effects of one. But governments must do what they must in ensuring safety for citizens within the resources they have. We are not alone. In the US, the Federal Bureau of Investigation got into a spat with Apple after it wanted to unlock an iPhone recovered from one of the terrorists in the December 2015 attack at San Bernardino in which 14 people were killed. Their dispute on whether and how much courts can compel manufacturers to help unlock cryptographically protected smartphones is a pointer to legitimate grounds for state intervention in technology. We must add, however, that India must keep listening to technologists so that restricted introduction of projects like Street View may benefit citizens. Technology is a continuing story.