What are you watching, big brother? | Book Review: Siddhartha’s ‘What does privacy mean’

Written by Shubhangi Shah

During the harsh Covid-induced lockdown, the government used drones to ensure compliance with safety rules. Then, it was to address a public health concern. However, the same was used during the anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) protests and against the Centre’s three farm laws. In the absence of any privacy-related protections regarding how the footage from this aircraft will be used, does this not violate our privacy and our right to protest? You will be faced with this question and what Siddhartha Sonkar’s privacy means: why it is important and how we can protect it.

The Central Monitoring System (CMS), under which telecom service providers must exercise government powers to monitor our telephone and mobile communications, the Network Traffic Analysis System (Netra) – a software that allows real-time monitoring of Internet traffic – and National Intelligence. NATGRID, which enables state agencies to collect data from various databases such as credit and debit cards, passports, driving licenses, etc., are some of the surveillance tools employed by the government. Much of it was launched in the wake of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks to boost national security. But is public surveillance the only way?

Sonkar cites the alleged use of Israeli spyware Pegasus by the Center against prominent journalists, activists and opposition leaders and the Bhima Koregaon case, where police confiscated the mobile phones and laptops of human rights activists and lawyers. An intersection between freedom of dissent, the right to privacy and surveillance. “Excessive surveillance undermines the power relationship between citizens and the state, and cripples democracy,” the author observes.

Looking at the above incidents, it is seen that the issue of public and national security is always in conflict with the right to privacy. However, both are equally important for an effective democracy and a secure society. So, what is the way forward? The answer may lie in a law enacted by parliament that creates “adequate privacy protections,” Sonkar said. In fact, he emphasizes this point several times in his book.

In the 1984 Orwell Dystopia set, Big Brother means dictator, read as a state. He controlled everything কি what anyone could buy, read, or even date.

Have you ever wondered how Tinder, the online dating app works? In a useful section entitled ‘When Cupid Breaks Our Trust’, Sonkar quotes freelance journalist Judith Duportel, who in her book L’Amour sous Algorithm (Love under Algorithm), discovered that Tinder uses a preferred rank known as the Elo score. A claim has been rejected by the app. The score “classifies users by their intelligence, preferences, resources, ethnicity, intelligence and attractiveness”. In other words, it ranks profiles and finds matches accordingly.

Empty vertical book template.

Also, most of us know that different ads are shown based on our browsing history and online activity. Doesn’t that determine what we bought, albeit somewhat? Yes, we access Internet platforms, including free social media. However, we pay with our time and attention কিন্তু but more importantly, our ability to make decisions about purchases without undue influence is fading, ”Sonkar writes. “Internet services that we think are free are actually paid by advertisers,” he added. Considering these, doesn’t the line between George Orwell’s 1984 Big Brother-owned technology companies and power seem a bit vague?

On page 414, what privacy means can be a long read. This is not a simple book, especially for those who have no legal background or knowledge of privacy. However, the author has explained each and every subtle in the simplest way, which can make your work easier. One suggestion is to read the book slowly to understand the various subtleties that are in the author, otherwise, you may be unaware if the same verses pop up later.

In his work, Sonkar seeks to cover all major developments related to the right to privacy, from Edward Snowden’s NSA release to Pegasus, and how technology companies shrink user data, starting with India’s Data Privacy Bill. Parts may feel repetitive, such as how social media uses our data, the Krishna Committee report, and the need for checks and balances in the Surveillance and Privacy Act, which are mentioned more than once in multiple places in the book. However, take the time to read this because you will stumble upon information, questions and issues that will alert you on the one hand and empower you on the other.

What privacy means: why it matters and how we can protect it
Siddhartha Sonkar
Page 384, 462 Rs

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.