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Waiting for Greenwald: why India can't stay mute on NSA spying

India's public stand on snooping by US intelligence agencies, which has been muted so far, will be important in the evolving global conversation on internet governance, diplomacy, security and privacy, writes Sushil Aaron.

ht view Updated: Apr 02, 2014 15:16 IST

No person in recent memory has succeeded in creating one big misunderstanding within the global policy elite as Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower who has drawn attention to US's spying activities across the world. These include gathering metadata about emails and phone calls, gaining access to personal communications of millions of users, breaking encryption that keeps private data safe and monitoring the phone conversations of 35 world leaders.

The Snowden leaks have provoked bilateral dust ups across the world. The latest is between Indonesia and Australia following revelations that the latter (as part of a US-led spying network) was tapping the phones of President Susilo Yudhoyono, his wife and members of his cabinet. Jakarta demanded an apology, recalled its Ambassador and declared that bilateral relations with Australia will not fully resume unless a new "protocol and code of ethical conduct" is agreed between both countries.

Brazil, France and Germany were earlier outraged by revelations of NSA's phone tapping of their citizens. President Dilma Roussef cancelled a state dinner with President Obama in October, France demanded an explanation while Germany called US tapping of Angela Merkel's personal mobile "completely unacceptable" - forcing Obama to personally reassure the Chancellor that her phone will not be tapped (presumably hereon).

India has, by contrast, been quite muted in its reaction to Snowden revelations, even though it figures as a major NSA target alongside Iran, Pakistan, Jordan and Egypt. Some 13 billion pieces of information were reportedly swooped up in one month and sophisticated hi-tech bugs were planted in the Indian Embassy in Washington DC and its Permanent Mission at the UN in New York. Delhi's reaction evolved from denying that gathering metadata was "not actually snooping" to dismissing it on the grounds that countries spied on each other all the time.

There are reasons for Delhi's reticence. There has been no massive public outcry for one, to force the government's hand as there has been in other countries. The Indian Left sees this as an affront, but sizeable segments of the Indian elite and middle class are in thrall of the US and thus couldn't be bothered with the issue. The Indian public has also got used to increased internal surveillance since the days of the Emergency and sees it as a tradeoff for countering insurgencies and terrorism.

The UPA government also does not want recriminations over spying to jeopardise an otherwise thriving Indo-US strategic relationship. The US is critical for India across a range of interests including global economic governance, regional security, maritime affairs, access to shale gas, weapons and high technology - and, of course, as a superpower keen to counter the rise of China.

India also values US and UK's expertise in counterterrorism which, in significant measure, depends on the surveillance apparatus that they have put in place. India is therefore not in a position to object to the very instruments that purportedly fortify its security. New Delhi has thus remained silent on phone tapping of its citizens, set about quietly securing its cyber defences, and perhaps privately conveyed its indignation to the US.

This approach may struggle under the pressure of leaks to follow. Obama announced a review of spying activities in October in an effort to move on from the crisis, but Snowden collaborator and journalist Glenn Greenwald has declared that the "most shocking" stories are yet to be published. Some of these will no doubt feature India. It is not inconceivable that Indian cabinet ministers and senior officials were listened to at crucial phases in recent years. Were Indians compromised when negotiating the fine print of the Indo-US nuclear deal or when they were coordinating positions on global climate change talks with other emerging powers and G-77 countries? Which elite clusters and sensitive nuclear, space and defence institutions were the NSA and UK's GCHQ targeting over the years? Was the NSA, like online spying operations originating in China, targeting the Indian policy elite including thinktanks, media, strategic affairs thinkers and business groups?

Greenwald could be weighing the merits of releasing India-related material when the country is in election mode, but there's a real chance that dramatic leaks will appear at some stage. The options for the UPA are limited in any event. It could, in theory, try and pre-empt the effect of Greenwald's leaks by asking the US to come clean on the scale of India's exposure to NSA's snooping. The government could insist on disclosure, carefully announce elements of findings and use the public reaction to generate support for implementing national cyber security policies. This is, however, a non-starter as the US is not known to volunteer information on its intelligence activities. It hasn't done so in case of allies like Germany and is unlikely to defer to India.

The case for a firmer posture on NSA spying, however, goes beyond party political calculation. It has to do with India's self-image and its credibility as an independent power when it fails to react to the systematic intrusion into its sovereign affairs, particularly when both countries view the other as a strategic partner. It is worth noting that the other powers who have spoken out also have strong material ties with the US. They may even strike opportunistic deals with Washington in the future but have for now chosen to articulate privacy concerns of their citizens in a way India has not.

Speaking out also upholds other values; it is about reiterating that world leaders cannot be unscrupulously spied on as militant actors are (surveillance on whom too requires legal authorisation). It is about norm setting in the world of diplomacy and resetting the nature of bureaucratic practice, particularly among those who consider themselves friends. It has to do with restoring conventions that enable relationship-building among actors in international affairs - which is scarcely possible in a scenario when the mere act of handing out a business card becomes a charged transaction that initiates asymmetry. As Angela Merkel put it "The accusations are grave. They must be explained and, more important still for the future, new trust must be built".

India's public stand will be important in the evolving global conversation on internet governance, diplomacy, security and privacy. New Delhi should have articulated how it truly felt about US spying at the time when Washington's political class was itself embarrassed by the extent of NSA operations - in order to limit potential blowback. It must do so the next time Greenwald releases a new set of revelations that concern India.

The writer is director of projects, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

Views expressed by the author are personal