internet surveillance

In my early youth when the sheer magic of sound, rhythm and verbal atmospherics casts a spell on you,I remember having been captivated by a now-forgotten poem by the American poet Vachel Lindsay.It used stereotypes of Africa as a land of black magic in incantatory verse to evoke a feeling of dread of unknown mysteries.Named ‘Congo’,it used the words used in the caption to this screed as a haunting refrain.

I have a similar kind of frisson going through reports on the widespread use of the Israeli spyware Pegasus in our blessed country.First,it is hidden and clandestine.You don’t know who is targetting you and why.Secondly you don’t know on what legal authority.Thirdly since there is no question of your consent to this illicit snooping on your private conversations,you suspect it may ensnare you in consequences by no means intended by you.And so on.

According to PTI reports the Government of India has brushed it off as aimed at ‘maligning Indian democracy’. Home Minister Amit Shah has elaborated on it to remark that the international outcry about it is actually a compact between native ‘obstructors’ who oppose the government’s innocent and benevolent acts(like the three Farm Laws for instance,or arrests under UAPA),and international ‘detractors’ who publicise them.

It sounds rather like the emerging pattern of turning victims of lynching and riots into criminals who richly deserve their fate.But that apart there is the larger problem of security of fundamental civil rights.Has the Voodoo of national security been cast to enfeeble and erase fundamental rights?

For the government has not denied outright that it is a party to this monstrous surveillance.The Israeli merchant of electronic snooping malware NSO has only governments as its customers.It is of course common knowledge that intelligence agencies have been used for long to trail and inform on opposition political leaders and hostile critics of the government in power.But this kind of sweeping surveillance which makes no distinction between dissent and subversion of the state, and which may very well be abused to help government undermine civil rights,is something not only larger in scale but also far more destructive in effect.

Only a couple of years ago honourable judges of the Supreme Court had responded to a query from the present government on record that the right to privacy is the soul,the very essence of the citizen’s inviolable dignity,the source of his fundamental rights.And here is evidence that this privacy has been grossly invaded and mutilated.

It is imperative that the present government is called upon to throw some light on the matter and it cannot withdraw into a Sphynx-like silence.Who is behind this surveillance and why? Should not that person or those persons be investigated and booked for trampling on the bedrock of the democracy the government swears by?

The Politbureau of the CPI(M) has raised the question who authorized this massive and deeply intrusive snooping? A most pertinent question.An online magazine has revealed that according to the law of the land phone-tapping is authorized by a high officer in the Home deptt.and it is vetted by a committee of senior bureaucrats.This is scandalous.For electronic surveillance goes much further and deeper than prying on conversations on the phone.If these bureaucrats happen to be pliant time-servers,or worse,adherents of some noxious ideology, the surveillance is bound to wreck the very foundation of the citizens’s privacy,dignity and rights.He becomes an unwitting cog in the designs of the government in power.

Therefore the Parliament must go deeper into the matter,and more,the judiciary cannot sit idle.The concern about overreach into executive policy does not extend to passivity when the citizens’ fundamental rights are suborned.Law involves reason,not Voodoo.

Hiren Gohain is a literary critic, and social scientist


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