Digital surveillance: When the govt wants to keep an eye on you

The possibility of a surveillance software that will track what you are saying online is the latest Orwellian nightmare come true

Written by Nishant Shah | Updated: March 6, 2016 11:39 am
The possibility of a surveillance software that will track what you are saying online is the latest Orwellian nightmare come true A surveillance software that will track what you are saying online is the latest Orwellian nightmare come true (Source: Thinkstock Images)

This is not the column I wrote for you today. I had it all typed up, ready to be pushed out. It was about the one thing that has been consuming the country for the last two weeks — the incredible crackdown and malicious clamping down on one of the most respected premier universities in the country. #StandWithJNU has exploded across our collective psyche and has betrayed an uneasy nexus between vested media outlets who doctor videos to facilitate a neo-fascist government that arrests students for voicing discontent.

In that column, I talked about the imminent threat not only to our higher education system but to the constitutional right of free speech and expression that is enshrined in our very fundamental rights. I tried to think about the desperate irony in a country that wants to build a #DigitalIndia and is not even able to harness the promises of equity, equality, and visibility of marginal voices that the digital networks bring with them.

More than anything else, the column was a critique of how the absurd but menacing arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar on trumped up charges of sedition, the bullying of news anchors like Arnab Goswami who presented doctored videos to incite violence and legal action against innocent students exercising their right to protest, the beating up of students and media personnel in Patiala House, and the death and rape threats to women who have been associated with the protests are not surprising. They are merely an amplification of the bullying tactics of a very vocal, digitally present, and unashamedly coercive right wing user-group that had tried to clamp, shut down, insult, bully, intimidate, threaten and harm those who they saw as “anti-national” during the last elections. The online behaviour which was not only not condemned but supported by a national party that was clearly focused on victory rather than the processes of winning the elections, have now found a physical and material reality.

The column ended with a bleak hope that the powers that be, will see the writing on their digital walls and realise that the digital natives and millennials that they are building the future for, are angry, frustrated and in despair, because the present that they are being made to live in does not promise a future — digital or not, made in India or not — that they want to be a part of.

I wrote that column and then deleted it, not because of the fear of living in seditious times. Because even as I was dotting the i-s and crossing the t-s, the government of India announced the opening of the National Media Analytics Centre (NMAC) with the express view of monitoring and analysing new media platforms — personal tumblrs, news media blogs, social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and everything else that you can imagine — in order to track and counter “negative narratives”. These will be countered by the government team to present a doctored, positive spin of the story before it goes out of control and leads to public dissent, protest or intervention. Based on a surveillance software that will not only track what you are saying online but also will look at the trends of your writing, create a profile that marks you as unruly, and collects information about you that will be forwarded to security agencies and higher authorities, the NMAC will now be the big brother that we had always imagined in conspiracy theories of state control.

This is why I deleted the earlier column. The sheer irony of the millennials, who see the true potentials of the digital and are used to its potentials of free speech and safe dissent, being subjected to this mammoth machinery of snooping and intimidation drew everything else out of my head. It is telling that when there are protests on the streets, where thousands of students are marching for their right to exercise their constitutional rights and to build a digital future that is founded by more than economic considerations, the government seems to be more interested in presenting a public perception and corrective narratives rather than actually taking the time to reconsider what its Digital India dreams can be. I deleted a column, and I wrote another one. Both of them would possibly count as negative voices.

If you share this on your social media, chances are you will be marked as a “belligerent” voice that is spreading anti-national comments. If you are reading different reports about this cell and being critical of it, you will be tracked as a negative individual who needs to be watched over by the loving grace of security agencies. Maybe, after deleting the last column, I should have just submitted a blank, wordless piece. That would have made us all safe.

Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.