India’s Cops Get Orwellian

This is the 30th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

I’m a huge fan of irony, and our world is full of it. Earlier this week, papers released by the National Archives in England revealed that “Special Branch police” had monitored George Orwell’s activities for a decade. In other words, Big Brother had been watching the man who would go on to write 1984. Orwell himself was presumably unaware of it – and yet, all too aware of the nature of Big Brother.

If Orwell were brought back from the dead, I presume he’d chuckle and think how little things have changed. He would certainly have been bemused by happenings in India. A few days ago, Mumbai’s police revealed their plans to install keystroke loggers in Mumbai’s cyber cafes, besides imposing licensing requirements on them.

This is done ostensibly to fight terrorism, and here are the implications for you and me. Whenever we surf from a Mumbai cyber café, everything we type will automatically be captured on record. Our email passwords, every message we type, the sites we visit, the pictures we download: everything will be stored in police records, rendering us, effectively, naked in their eyes.

If we buy stuff online, our credit card details will also get saved. Will these end up getting sold in a black market somewhere? Not unlikely. Much as we like to think of governments as benevolent entities that exist to serve us, in reality they comprise individuals with the same human weaknesses as the rest of us, responding to incentives just as we do. The Mumbai police, like all police in India, consists of underpaid people given excessive powers over others, with little accountability. So how do you expect them to behave?

Unless a policeman’s self-interest is perfectly aligned with the public interest, which is not the case in our system of government, it is inevitable that he will feel tempted to use his power for personal gain. It is equally likely that the police, like any other arm of government, will focus on expanding its power, and increasing its control over people, rather than carrying out its tasks, for which it is not accountable in practice. By insisting that cyber cafes in Mumbai need a license from the police, for example, they have opened up a new under-the-table revenue stream.

The government’s rationale (or rationalization) behind this is familiar and silly. Whenever the government wants to restrict freedom, it invokes security, and cops justify this move under the grounds of fighting terrorism. Well, firstly, at a practical level, the cops won’t have the manpower to scrutinize the massive volume of keystroke logs generated everyday, or to figure out what is terrorist code and what is teenage lingo. Secondly, at a moral level, it is simply wrong to deny people of their privacy in this manner.

Mid Day quoted an unnamed “National Vice President, People Union for Civil Liberty” as justifying these moves by saying that it was ok “[a]s long as personal computers are not being monitored. If monitoring is restricted to public computers, it is in the interest of security.” By this reasoning, why should the cops not place TV cameras in hotel rooms or record every conversation in every taxi and train? After all, terrorists use hotels and public transport. Are you okay with that?

The ultimate expression of a government’s lust for power lies in a term coined by Orwell in 1984: Thoughtcrime. Thoughtcrimes are thoughts that have been criminalised, and if the technology to detect emotions existed, it is not unlikely that the Indian government would ban hatred. Or, at least, hatred of things that it deems should not be hated. A recent Mid Day report describes how various authorities are trying to get communities on Orkut that are against Pratibha Patil removed. They include communities with names like ‘We hate Pratibha Patil’, ‘We don’t like Pratibha Patil’, ‘Pratibha Patil sucks’, and ‘Pratibha Patil — the puppet’.

I am no fan of the lady myself, and have expressed, in an earlier instalment of this column, my distaste for her views favouring compulsary sterilization of people with heriditory diseases, and her delusions about being able to converse with spirits. Columns appearing in big newspapers are harder to censor, but I fail to see why members of Orkut should be barred from expressing similar emotions.

Earlier this month, a computer engineer based in Bangalore was arrested “after he allegedly uploaded a blasphemous matter [sic] about Maratha warrior king Chhatrapati Shivaji” on Orkut. Google, which owns Orkut, reportedly collaborated in the matter, providing the engineer’s IP address to the cops. (It is natural for them to go by the law of the land, according to the land they’re in, but they really should get off their “do no evil” high horse.) Technology, while it enables free expression, also provides mechanisms for its suppression. Don’t expect our government not to use it.

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You can browse through all my columns for Mint in my Thinking it Through archives.