[Reader-list] You're being watched

Taha Mehmood 2tahamehmood at googlemail.com
Sat Mar 27 12:08:37 IST 2010

Finally it appears that some sectors of the so called main-stream
media in India are slowly waking up to a dark reality which to a few
people, in the privacy sector, arts sector and the academic sector,
seemed a nightmare India was going to enter into, since almost a
decade back.

 Not to mention, a surveillance society in India, which many people in
the technology sector, security sector and the business sector had
been dreaming about for almost last twenty five years is slowing
becoming a delicious reality.

Please read the adjoining article on the uses of marrying the data
collected through the UID with Natgrid.

If the use of numbers will help us to imagine ourselves as
mathematical objects, more as a type really, a practice of image
making of our bodies, on an everyday basis will assist in creating an
archive of artifacts. If numbers will make us stand apart, image
making of our bodies will make us merge where only those who don't gel
in will be distinguished. Like the Delhi police advisory asks us to be
on a look out for those who are wearing winter clothes in summer.

The need of the hour, it seems, is an complementary emergence of a
strong, vibrant, privacy sector in Inida. A group of people who are
deft with the use of words and images could make a big difference.


You're being watched

As Indians grow more concerned about their personal security,
surveillance cameras are keeping watch everywhere. They’re springing
up at Mumbai traffic lights, Bangalore malls and Delhi’s Metro. But
are they actually making us safer? The Mumbai attacks of November 2008
were among the most recorded terror strikes ever. Cameras at CST
railway station, the Taj and Trident hotels followed the Pakistani
invaders as they mowed down 173 people. But though those images are
important bits of evidence in the trial of Ajmal Amir Kasab, the only
gunman who was captured, they didn’t actually help to curtail the
siege of the hotels or prevent any deaths. What is clear, however, is
that the proliferation of cheap video technology, coupled with the
easy distribution of recorded images on the internet, is posing a
grave threat to our privacy. Time Out reporters across the country
explore the rise of the surveillance industry – and look at how it’s
changing urban India. We also give you a sneak preview of director
Dibakar Banerjee’s new film Love Sex aur Dhokha, a triptych about how
digital film technology has invaded the private lives of Indians.
Finally, in the Gay & Lesbian section, Ally Gator explains why queer
people are especially nervous about spycams society.


A Gathering Storm – How the UID Project Will Tranform India Into a Police State
March 21, 2010

Various initiatives within the government are converging to transform
India into a classic police state. Enabling this transformation is
everyone’s darling, the UID project. The UID project is a triumph of
marketing over reality. Marketed as a fundamental enabler for targeted
delivery of government services, UID numbers will instead form the
bedrock for pervasive state surveillance.

The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) however, has
repeatedly downplayed the use of UID numbers for surveillance and
security functions by consistently omitting this topic in official
communication through their website and press releases. Nevertheless
the context and limited scope of the Authority reveal its real intent.
While conceptually the project has been in discussion since the
Vajpayee government (2002), renewed impetus came in the wake of Mumbai
terror attacks in November 2008. The UIDAI was established in February
2009, less than three months of the attack. Despite the altruistic
marketing, the Authority refuses responsibility for improved service
delivery stating, “The UIDAI is only in the identity business. The
responsibility of tracking beneficiaries and the governance of service
delivery will continue to remain with the respective agencies”.

Concurrently with setting up the UIDAI, the Indian Parliament
substantially amended the Information Technology Act 2000 in December
2008 to give the government power to tap all communications without a
court order or a warrant. Section 69 of ITA 2008 states “[…] necessary
or expedient to do in the interest of the sovereignty or integrity of
India, defense of India, security of the State, friendly relations
with foreign States or public order or for preventing incitement to
the commission of any cognizable offence relating to above or for
investigation of any offence, it may […] direct any agency of the
appropriate Government to intercept, monitor or decrypt or cause to be
intercepted or monitored or decrypted any information transmitted
received or stored through any computer resource.”

Against this legislative and infrastructural background, the
government is setting up a national intelligence grid (NATGRID). The
NATGRID under Raghu Raman (ex-CEO, Mahindra Special Services Group)
will interlink 21 categories of databases (railway and air travel,
Income Tax, phone calls, bank account details, credit card
transactions, visa and immigration records, property records, driving
licence) for real-time monitoring of all residents in the country.
NATGRID is expected to be fully operation by May 2011 and will
eventually use UID numbers for these inter-database linkages.

Simultaneously work has begun on the National Population Register
(NPR) which will collect information such as name, sex, date of birth,
current marital status, name of father, mother and spouse, educational
level attained, nationality, occupation, activity pursued, present and
permanent addresses along with individual biometrics. Chidambaram has
cautioned that due care needs to be taken to ensure that “illegal”
residents in border districts (Bangladesh, Nepal) don’t worm their way
into the NPR giving the census an ominous policing quality. The NPR
will depend on UID for de-duplication.

UID numbers will also facilitate the advance of a neoliberal state.
There’s trepidation amongst many in the civil society about data
convergence using UID numbers, and its monetization for private
profit. This is not just a remote possibility but part of the official
intent. The government is licensing credit information companies
(CICs) under the Credit Information Companies (Regulation) Act 2005 to
develop consumers’ credit profiles based on their transaction history
from banks, NBFCs, telecoms and insurance companies. CICs will use UID
numbers to collect and collate this information. This will inevitably
lead to the type of predatory marketing seen in the United States (on
the basis of social security numbers) and on the other side facilitate
financial exclusion not inclusion of the poor. The Authority itself
takes a predictably hands-off approach to data convergence stating,
“Convergence of existing databases will need to be addressed and
governed under a larger data protection regime applicable to the whole
country and therefore this is a matter beyond the mandate of the

While terror is a high-profile and charged topic in the country, mass
surveillance cannot be justified in the name of improved security.
There are other alternatives to track organized terror outfits without
undertaking blanket real-time citizen monitoring. In fact there is
substantial evidence that identity cards/numbers would not have
prevented many recent terror attacks (e.g., Madrid bombings in 2004,
9/11, London underground attacks in 2005, Israel suicide bombings,
Pakistan bombings). Moreover surveillance in India is not just limited
to identifying alleged terrorists but any activity that can be twisted
into “defense/sovereignty of India” or cognizable offence. The
potential for misuse is tremendous (e.g., inconvenient activists,
purported Maoists).

UID project’s basic premise of fundamentally improving delivery of
welfare services does not withstand scrutiny. UID deployment will come
at a prohibitively high cost and only address a small subset of
leakages in marked contrast to other more effective governance
mechanisms inexplicably snubbed by the government. At the same UID
deployment will enable a mass surveillance police state leading to
both invasion of individual privacy and curtailment of civil
liberties. There is immediate need for transparency about the
objectives of the project and a vigorous public debate on its need and

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