Tapping privacy

Is there a larger lesson to be drawn from the WikiLeaks release of 2,50,000 confidential cables sent by American diplomats, and the unconnected but near simultaneous publication/broadcast of calls received or made by corporate lobbyist Niira Radia?
WikiLeaks and the media outlets that released the Radia tapes worked on the assumption that the attendant controversy, the hundreds of sub-plots and unalloyed speculation — Why did Saudi Arabia say X to the United States about Iran? Which official in the US embassy in Y is a spy? Which journalist is on the take, which one will lose his job? Which MP in party Z receives money and instructions from one or the other tycoon? — and the embarrassment that institutions and individuals encountered would drown out the privacy/confidentiality debate. It would make moving court and seeking an injunction (too late anyway) or pressing charges seem churlish and vindictive.
Equally, it is unclear what a ban on WikiLeaks will achieve. True, the website is in breach of the law and can expect to hear from government lawyers. Nevertheless, the simplicity with which technology now enables information to flow in and out of firewalls — used in every sense of the term — of governments and establishments makes it sobering to conclude that WikiLeaks is only a symptom. Its methods are easily replicable.
At least in the case of WikiLeaks security agencies and police prosecutors know whom to address the legal notices to. What would happen if a dissident (or mischievous or plain crazy) state department official were to download confidential files and transfer them to his pen drive, then walk out and mail the pen drive to his wife’s brother’s father-in-law in Belarus and have the gentleman upload the files onto a new site created in an Internet café in Latvia? It would be possible to hide a paper/e-paper trail and the name of the website’s creator and owner could be buried behind several screens and aliases. Alternatively, what if a non-mainstream, Iceland-based trendy-left website decides to hire a professional hacker in pursuit of what it believes is a legitimate story?
The case of the Radia tapes is analogous. The income-tax authorities began monitoring the lady’s mobile phone in 2008. However, the source of the current round of leaks is not the government but, as is understood, corporate rivals of some of Radia’s clients. In turn, they have got the tapes (or some of the tapes) from officials in the income-tax office whom they have cultivated.
This leads us to two ancillary issues. First, the security of data in the government system is questionable. Most Indians have known this long enough anyway; as a society we don’t place much store on notions of privacy. Yet, here one is not talking of accidental leaks. So-called secret information with government agencies is up for sale, a situation the Union home minister calls “inevitable”.
Second, in the India of the 1980s tapping telephones used to be a crude and difficult process that only the government could accomplish, usually by ordering a linesman to climb the telephone pole outside the target’s house. Today, surveillance technology has proliferated. Mobile phones can be listened in on using devices that are available with several Union government agencies, some state governments and an unknown number of private persons or entities.
A few months ago, there was a furore about Nitish Kumar’s phone being tapped by the Union government and transcripts of an innocuous conversation involving the Bihar chief minister were published in the newspapers. In actuality, Mr Kumar was not being monitored. The story this columnist was told was downright bizarre.
In New Delhi, a highly-strung, power-drunk capital, junior functionaries of various government investigative agencies are given mobile-phone tapping devices, a car and an address. They are told to park themselves outside a particular office or residence and record and listen to calls being made by the mobile phone (or phones) inside.
However, the tapping devices are not number-specific. While driving from their office to the target address, the junior functionaries — the equivalent of police constables — could decide to test the instrument. They could decide to hear what the man on the cellphone in the next car at the traffic signal is saying. They could stop outside my residence (picked at random) and eavesdrop as I use my mobile phone to call my wife at her office and discuss dinner plans. As it happened, they stopped outside a government bungalow in central Delhi that had been allotted to Mr Kumar and heard him discuss procedural matters with one of his bureaucrats.
At least this is government tapping. Private tapping is an altogether different story. Corporate houses resort to it — the Amar Singh tapes, released a few years ago and recording his chats with politicians, movie stars and businessmen, and the “Tata tapes”, made public in 1997 after Nusli Wadia’s calls were apparently tapped by a business adversary, were private sector initiatives. This technology is loose in the market and impossible to legislate. The government may clamp down on equipment vendors it knows of and force them to ban (or register) sales. Yet, what of equipment vendors who are unknown?
There are two ways of dealing with this phenomenon. The predictable one is to invest even more in encryption and tapping-proof and leak-resistant technology, in practically strip-searching every person working in the state department (or anywhere) as he leaves in the evening and looking for that damned pen drive or whatever. This process is expensive and cumbersome. It will inevitably lead to a ceaseless race, where the likes of Wikileaks and its sources will innovate and governments and business corporations will strive to catch up and stay ahead.
The other way is to rethink the way we — or at least governments and public individuals and institutions — do business in this age of runaway information. This may not be the End of History, but it is certainly the End of Privacy. What does it mean for, for instance, secret archives and declassification time periods? Should the latter be shortened if not eliminated for certain categories of documents? Will really important information be passed on face-to-face, rather than on the phone or in an emailed cable? What will this do to timelines and communication costs?
We don’t know the answers, but perhaps we should start pondering those questions.

n Ashok Malik can be
contacted at malikashok@gmail.com

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