USA and Indian Government:

Stop Invading Our Privacy!

“Big Brother is Watching You.”

― George Orwell, 1984

The USA, which likes to style itself as the defender of freedom and democracy, has emerged as the real-life totalitarian ‘Big Brother’ imagined by Orwell’s dystopia, invading every inch of privacy all over the globe. The revelations of former CIA operative and whistleblower Edward Snowden to The Guardian and The Washington Post have established that Uncle Sam is indeed Big Brother, and that ‘Big Brother’ is hearing all our calls and reading all our mails and posts on social media. The USA’s National Security Agency (NSA), in the name of safeguarding the security of US citizens, has secretly invaded the privacy of every country and every person all over the world, including in the US.

Snowden, a contractor for the NSA, revealed that the NSA used a datamining tool called Boundless Informant that allowed it to mine computer and telephone network data according to countries. The PRISM program collected internet data from the various companies. This data shows that India was the fifth most targeted country by the US.

Double Standards

The US attitude to such revelations has been marked by its characteristic arrogant double standards. In the US, the outrage over Snowden’s revelations is confined mainly to the question of whether the privacy of US citizens has been violated: it seems to be taken for granted that citizens of other countries have no right to privacy! US President Obama, while admitting ‘modest encroachment’ on the privacy of US citizens, has insisted “with respect to internet and emails, this does not apply to US citizens and it does not apply to people living in the United States.” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney has said that Obama believes “it’s entirely appropriate for a programme to exist to look at foreign data and potential foreign terrorists.”

The US hunts down Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, accusing him of violating America’s secrets. Yet the US President has no qualms in admitting to the violation of the secrets of other countries and citizens of those countries! Clearly, it wasn’t a megalomaniac ‘Emperor’ Bush alone who claimed the US’ exclusive privilege to violate the right to life, liberty and privacy. This naked, unashamed claim is inherent, not to one individual ‘Emperor’ but to the Empire itself: to US imperialism. The US under Obama has claimed for itself the unquestioned right to summarily execute individuals in drone strikes, bomb civilian populations, and indulge in digital snooping. 

In the 1970s, the Watergate scandal (wiretapping of Democratic Party offices by a Republican Government) led to the resignation of US President Nixon. Today, the people of the world know that the US Government has been listening to our calls, reading our mails and posts. Surely this is a scandal of much larger proportions than Watergate? Why isn’t it as big a political issue for the US media and people?    

‘To Protect Us All’?    

The US defends its Big Brother role, by literally claiming to be the ‘big brother’ protecting us all –citizens of the US and the world - from terrorism. In particular, the US is claiming that its spying operations helped India to combat terrorism.

The NSA Director warned that Snowden’s leaks had jeopardized the security of the US and its allies, “There is no doubt in my mind …that not only in the US, but those allies that we have helped, will no longer be as safe as they were two weeks ago.” To back this claim up, he claimed that US intelligence efforts had led to the capture of LeT operative David Headley, wanted for the Mumbai terrorist strike. This is a blatant lie. It was British, not US intelligence that enabled Headley’s arrest in October 2009. Moreover, there are all the indications that Headley was, in fact, a US agent in the first place. Given that the US spy network could not identify a terrorist double agent in its own ranks, the US is being incredibly audacious in citing Headley to defend its spying operations!  

India’s Own Plans to Snoop on Its Citizens  

While European countries have expressed consternation at the revelation that the US was violating their privacy laws, India’s response has been subdued. Why hasn’t the Indian Government been keen on defending the privacy of its citizens? Because its only concern seems to be to remain a ‘partner’ of US spying agencies while launching its own covert surveillance operations to tap the mails, phones and posts of Indian citizens.   

The FBI and NSA are already known to have close links with India’s intelligence agencies. It has already been pointed out how CIA-backed US corporations are involved in the UID/Aadhaar project (‘What’s the ‘Aadhaar’ of the UID Scheme?’, Liberation April 2011)

In 2011, the Indian Government had announced the Central Monitoring System (CMS), and in April 2013 the CMS has come into effect – without any public debate. Most Indian citizens are as yet unaware that the CMS will allow security agencies and income tax officials the ability to directly access e-mails and phone calls without oversight by courts or Parliament. Amazingly, it is being claimed that public debate must be avoided because public awareness and scrutiny about CMS “would limit its effectiveness as a clandestine intelligence-gathering tool” and would therefore endanger national security!

Such widespread powers to invade privacy of citizens are the hallmarks of totalitarianism. The scope for political manipulation of private data to frame, harass, or blackmail political dissidents is enormous. We have already seen how Section 66A of the IT Act has already been widely used to target those who are critical of the Government. In India, and around the world, surveillance by the State has served to target journalists, critical voices, and political opponents. 

Will Corporations Access Our Private Data?

In India, as in other parts of the world, the other huge concern about surveillance is the access that private corporate interests have to citizens’ data. It is all too possible that UID data (collected through the Aadhaar project which headed by CEO Nandan Nilekani) will be available for commercial interests. In the March 2012 budget the then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee announced that the “GSTN (Goods and Sales Tax Network) will be set up as a National Information Utility (NIU)”. Lawyer and activist Usha Ramanthan explains what the implications of such NIUs might be, in the light of the January 2011 report of the Nilekani-chaired Technology Advisory Group on Unique Projects (TAG-UP) and the Aadhaar project.

The TAG-UP report, which refers repeatedly to the UID Aadhaar project, says that “NIUs would be private companies with a public purpose: profit-making, not-profit maximising” and would be “essentially set up as natural monopolies” (rather like streets or airports?). Usha Ramanathan summarises the report’s concept of NIUs: “Governmental data and databases are to be privatised through the creation of NIUs, which will then ‘own’ the data; NIUs will use the data and the database to be profit-making and not profit-maximising, and the definition of these terms may, of course, vary; Government will support the NIUs through funding them till they reach a steady state, and by doing what is needed to gather the data and create the database using governmental authority; once the NIU reaches steady state, the government will reappear as the customer of the NIU; Government officers will be deployed in NIUs and be paid 30% over their salaries, which, even if the report does not say it explicitly, is expected to forge loyalties and vested interests…”

Governments inevitably have access to some private data of citizens: data that is recorded in records of schools, hospitals, marriage registers, jails, etc. The NIUs challenge the basic ethical norms underpinning the Government’s right to access and hold such data, by “vesting of ownership over citizens’ data in an entity which will then have the government as their customer.” (‘Aadhaar: Private ownership of UID data’, Usha Ramanathan, Moneylife, 29 April 2013) 


We in India must demand that the Indian Government protest against the violation of the sovereignty of India and the privacy of its citizens by the USA, and put a moratorium on its own digital spying and data-gathering plans including the UID, CMS and NIU projects until transparency, public scrutiny and debate are ensured. Internet and phone companies cannot be allowed to become tools of the US or any other Government, and must be held accountable to their commitments to the privacy of individuals.