The report that the US National Security Agency is mining a huge amount of information from the Internet is not surprising. Since 9/11 and the burgeoning growth of the Internet and the social media in the 2000s, the need to access this data has been a major compulsion for the intelligence agencies. The fact that jihadist networks soon proliferated all over the Internet made this even more important.
Most of the world’s communications flow through the United States, providing it fortuitous access to it. According to the Guardian newspaper of UK, companies like Microsoft, Apple, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, PayTalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL have been the source of data from e-mail, chat (video and voice), photos, stored files, VOIP, file transfers, video conferencing, banking, travel, and so on.
There was a time when people wondered whether even huge agencies like the NSA could cope with the massive increase in data that had taken place because of the internet. One estimate is that the world’s daily output of data is currently of the order of 2.5 quintillion bytes. But the PRISM data collection programme which was leaked to The Guardian and Washington Post revealed that the Americans have indeed mastered the challenge.
Advances in software technology had made it possible to carry out largely automatic and rapid searches through vast amounts of data. The software can, for example, match time and location data from cellphones with credit card purchases. Indeed, the kind of information available is much more than the one that could be obtained through simply carrying out physical surveillance on a target or tapping their phones.
More important, this surveillance can be carried out on individuals living thousands of miles away. Metadata analysis - such as who is calling who, and who is traveling where, or who is purchasing what and where - is extremely useful in tracking the movements of suspect individuals.
The PRISM leak showed, for example, that the “Boundless Informant” data mining tool collected 97 billion pieces of data in March 2013 alone. Of this, 14 per cent was from Iran, 13.5 from Pakistan, Jordan 12.7, Egypt 7.6, India 6.3, and about 3 per cent came from within the US. The target countries suggest that besides Iran, which is viewed as a US adversary because of its nuclear programme, the surveillance related to jihadist terrorism. You must also take into account that internet usage in most of these countries is not particularly high as a proportion to their population.
So far, the governments of the United States and UK have made reassuring noises about the issue. Last Friday, President Obama said that the programme worked under the US Congress’ scrutiny and that Americans were not targeted by it. In UK, Foreign Secretary William Hague, too, argued that whatever had happened had taken place within the bounds of the law, adding that law abiding people had nothing to fear from it.
But these guarantees do not extend to target countries like India and internet users like you and me. The options before us are not too many. At least the US and UK have laws which guarantee privacy and their respective parliaments maintain an oversight over their respective intelligence agencies. Any NSA or GCHQ bureaucrat knows that should it be revealed that they were breaking the law they would end up in prison. We have neither privacy laws nor an oversight system over our agencies.
All this is particularly disturbing since India is rolling out its own version of the NSA’s monitoring of the internet through the Central Monitoring System (CMS) which will monitor all phones and internet activity in the country. The actions of Indian officials have not been particularly reassuring on the score of guaranteeing privacy or the right of free speech.
We had the instance of a professor being charged in West Bengal for circulating a cartoon of Mamata Banerjee, the arrest of a person for a comment on P Chidambaram’s son, and the episode of a girl in Mumbai being charged for a comment on Facebook criticising the shutdown following Balasaheb Thackeray’s death. As for privacy, the Radia tapes have brought out the wanton manner in which private telephone conversations landed up in the public domain.
Yet, the compulsion of states to trawl ever increasing volumes of data must also be understood. Besides criminal activities like child pornography, money laundering and online fraud, the Internet is also an important vehicle for the jihadist terrorist. A great deal of recruitment and motivation takes place online, as indeed, does the organisation and fund-raising for terrorist acts. It would be irresponsible on the part of the state not to track this activity.
But here we come to the dilemma posed by the sheer volume of data being generated globally in the era of the internet as well as the rise of the global jihad that does not respect national boundaries. Targeted surveillance is simply not possible and some form of data mining has to be undertaken. Notwithstanding their other preoccupations, the Indian political class needs to be made aware of the importance of privacy and freedom of speech and expression in the era of the Internet.
The writer is Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi