The Surveillance State: The Moral Cost Of Being Watched Every Time

No matter how hard political theorists try to convince, the modern nation-state system is essentially autocratic at the core. Whether you go to Germany, the United States or recent democracies like India, in whatever fabric the democracy is presented, certainly it is not close to anything like the textbook definition of democracy. As a system that has been in use for more than two hundred years with all the advanced ideas, it’s the least perfect. One of the most fundamental differences between the various democracies lies not in their constitutional or legal arrangements but in the degree of autocracy they exercise visibly or invisibly.

One can say that the army and the police are perhaps the most visible arm of the state in exercising their autocracy, but with limitations but what gets often neglected is the espionage, the government spy cum surveillance arm, the intelligence agencies. They are the most secretive, and the greater arm of the state for surveillance. Every nation has its separate intelligence agencies at the central level, along with intelligence units at various levels of organizations such as the police and the army itself. I am concerned more about the intelligence agencies at the central level and that too the one used for internal purposes for surveillance of the citizens.

Signature remarks from George Orwell’s novel, 1984

In the old past days, intelligence gathering was simply gathering enough data on the person of interest. But with the coming of technology, it’s no more a mere exercise of data collection on particular individuals but extensive surveillance of the residents of the country. Data processing has emerged as one of the career options with diplomas available at University level. This all may seem futile as we all know this much about the intelligence agencies but what I am pointing towards is a simple question- Have we ever asked ourselves what value is there of our rights protected by the constitution and does it make any sense to celebrate various Supreme Court judgements which validated our stand for the right to privacy, right to be forgotten among others? Does it make sense to rejoice at our hollow victory? A victory that is no victory at all having no substance? If we thoroughly analyse these questions we are bound to conclude that at any given time the state knows every bit of personal information of yours? In this, I am not talking about the private players involved in this game, my sole complaint is with the state because I have made an irrevocable contract with the state, not the private limited companies.

The recent revelations of Edward Snowden, an American former computer intelligence consultant, regarding the National Security Agency in 2013, brought before us how governments around the world misuse intelligence for deep surveillance purposes. Similarly, the NSO Pegasus issue has implicated the Indian government for surveillance of its citizen, who happened to be high-ranked politicians and bureaucrats. These examples didn’t arise popular opinion, but I was shocked to learn when the Delhi government announced to install CCTV in school premises and provide access to the parents of the children of the video recording so that they can monitor for themselves what their kid was doing in school.

This is just not surveillance by the state but roping citizenry in and perhaps making them a stakeholder. I would argue, this serves both the government purpose to monitor its citizens as well as gaining legitimacy for its otherwise undefendable act. Similarly, Delhi is studded with thousands of CCTV cameras over all the streets. The usual argument is to provide safety to women’s, make Delhi safe among others, but the issue is not as simple as it seems to be. In this modern technological age, with deep facial recognition technologies, you just cannot monitor thief’s and miscreants but anyone in the crowd. Police can have access to traffic cameras, only recently it was cleared by the Delhi Traffic Chief that CCTV footage from traffic cameras would not be provided to police.

But a mere directive is not enough. It needs substantial effort from civil society to stop the government from snooping on them. The surveillance system has become so much embedded in the system itself that it is sometimes harder to recognise its tools. Take for the example Toll system, as you pass any toll, it scans your car number plate and feeds it to the system. You may not realize but someone hidden from your gaze knows that you travelled to such and such a place with such a car at such a time. This is just not a breach of privacy but also of the dignity which we value so much in our life.

The “Big Data” as it is called is the next biggest asset with the states. The Chinese Surveillance System with its aggressive monitoring of its citizens has become a template for all the governments around the world. The draft DNA profiling bill which is under consideration of the joint committee of the parliament is also a case in point. It will be not just a surveillance tool but a legal negation of privacy, dignity and lifelong humiliation. There is an urgent need to strike a balance between an effective criminal justice system which the bill seeks to establish along with maintaining the dignity of the person. The leak of such data if not properly guarded will rob the person of its right to life, one of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution itself.

But it’s na├»ve to ask the authority to be transparent as it’s the greatest abuser of authority. It’s hard if not impossible to reform the democratic system because of all its fault it’s the one that lends itself to the greatest modification. The coming century will be crucial for democracies all over the world, and the greatest challenge will be how the state and its citizen negotiate the surveillance system, until then the odds are completely stacked against the citizens of the state. In the end, it is not to say intelligence gathering is all bad, there is a fine distinction between intelligence gathering and surveillance. Intelligence about enemy activities is an altogether different matter but surveillance of citizens and opening a war front towards the civil society is another. As we are at the cusp of ushering into a digital revolution, with governance, big data analytics becoming the norm, we must not let our guard down against the dystopian Orwellian state we are headed towards. Big Brother must not watch us everywhere.