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For a fine balance

india Updated: Jan 06, 2012 22:47 IST
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A few weeks ago, social media received the attention of the sarkar when the government tried to control Twitter, Facebook and other internet services for having posted or allowed to be posted what was described as scurrilous and objectionable material on their sites. There was a furore in India’s online world with charges that the government was trying to curb freedom of expression. While it is essential that India should preserve the freedom of speech and expression, surely this cannot be an absolute right.

The government may use the strong-arm tactic to make others fall in line, but there is no clear remedy for an individual who reasonably expresses his or her thoughts on Facebook or Twitter, only to face obnoxious, vituperative comments. It is for the internet services to provide remedies, and insist repeatedly that such services are available. It cannot be a more difficult task than controlling an uncouth lout on the street who chooses to be abusive or obnoxious and who can be abused in turn, reported to the authorities or ignored as an individual. Except that in the case of social media, the abuser has created evidence against himself.

While these are issues that could be worked out by social media services and governments of the countries in which they operate, States have other worries as well. Mass media, in its different forms, has been used by the State to manufacture consent or create dissent in other countries. The former involves media management, the latter is more in the nature of psychological warfare used in peace time, indeed at all times, as an exercise of soft power. The traditional vehicles for the purpose have been the newspaper, radio, television or the cinema. However, for the insurgent or dissident, these instruments have always been beyond reach, either to own or manipulate. With the onset of the communication revolution and the arrival of the personal computer, laptops and internet, the State lost its upper-hand. The single lane mountain track suddenly became an eight-lane super-highway: one that was cheap, fast and accessible to all, whether terrorist, criminal, arms-merchant, smuggler, human trafficker or money-launderer.

It is worth following what happened in the US — the mother of so many inventions and the strongest protagonist of democracy and individual freedom — and how it tackled the problem. In the two years preceding September 2001, many of the would-be hijackers of the aircraft that rammed into the World Trade Centre in New York and the Pentagon, were living in the US and communicating with the operation centres of al-Qaeda in West Asia. The National Security Agency (NSA), America’s largest and most sophisticated electronic intelligence agency, had been listening but never conveyed this information to anyone.

Post 9/11, the US went into overdrive. Rapidly, the NSA under George Bush developed its capability further, engaging in a gigantic vacuum cleaner-like surveillance of all the data that crossed the internet, including email, web surfing, social media, cell phones — and this was just domestic surveillance. The US has now developed an interception technology — the NarusInsight Suite (NIS) — to capture and reconstruct various aspects of webmail traffic including email, chat, draft folders, address books and much more. The company boasts that it can capture 10 billion records a day with applications in wireless, WiFi, prepaid, broadband voice and data. There is very little left uncovered. The data captured represents enough information to fill 37,000 new Libraries of Congress, says James Bamford in his book The Shadow Factory.

Armed with this data, the terrorist suspect watchlist in the US now measures half a million and growing. Many names are there by mistake, many people suffer ignominies because of these inaccurate lists. The US has created a super secret behemoth and outsourced top private contracts as well. There are 250,000 such contractors on top-secret programmes; more than 1,200 government organisations and 2,000 private companies work on top-secret programmes at more than 10,000 locations in the US. This is a manifestation of the growing industry-intelligence complex. Dana Priest and William Arkin, in their book Top Secret America, have disclosed that the US is now building a huge clandestine “fourth branch” of government, little known to many in the US.

It is possible that this huge apparatus has prevented another terrorist attack in the US. Techniques of technological surveillance used in Afghanistan and Iraq are now being used in the US to investigate political activists and ordinary citizens. Though the terror threat is far greater in India than in the US, we do not have any facility of the same reach and magnitude. Our National Tehnical Research Organisation seems fairly hamstrung; the new institutions that have been introduced are top-heavy as well as top-down, with the bottom rung weak, untrained and under-motivated. We cannot have the same kind of apparatus that the US has, but at least we can take intelligence seriously, which needs a change in the attitude of the government, bureaucracy and the media, with its powerful reach. Inferior intelligence will only mean repeated failures. What the NSA is doing in the US will inevitably be need to be done in India too, maybe in a scaled-down version either because of lack of funds, expertise or appreciation.

We simply have to learn to give up some of our freedoms to preserve our liberty and independence. There cannot be absolute and uninhibited freedom. There has to be a balance between the needs for security and the desire for freedom.

Vikram Sood is former secretary, Research & Analysis Wing
The views expressed by the author are personal