Debate of the decade – Privacy or Security?

Which would you choose, devil or the deep sea?


“I can’t in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building.”
– Edward Snowden

As I’m writing this article, the Honourable Supreme Court of India considers an important case that will decide the future of Aadhaar, the unique identity number issued to all Indian residents based on their biometric and demographic details. Over the years, the Government of India has been linking Aadhaar with more and more services, such as bank accounts and PAN cards. The government claims that these moves will help bring down crimes such as tax frauds and money laundering, two big evils that have been pulling this still-developing economy backwards. However, as with any other centralized personal information bank of this scale, the possibility of it falling into the wrong hands or even being used by the government to snoop on individuals is not something that can be neglected. It was only a couple of days back that an IIT Kharagpur graduate was arrested for hacking into private Aadhaar data of around 50,000 people. This is exactly the issue that the Supreme Court is considering – is a project at the scale of Aadhar justifiable on the grounds of crime prevention, even with the huge ticking bomb of privacy issues it comes with?

In fact, the debate of security vs privacy has been burning for a long time now. The exposés by Edward Snowden and Chelsea Elizabeth Manning showed the world how NSA and CIA had infiltrated every corner of the Internet, spying on every message that is being exchanged. Tech giants including, but not limited to Google and Microsoft confessed to working with security agencies, effectively breaching the trust between the respective company and its users. Every now and then, we come across news stating unholy partnerships between tech companies and governments, feeding on private data of users.

However, this is only one side of the story. Surveillance does help in preventing crimes such as terror attacks, and aids in hastening the process of solving crimes. Moreover, surveillance significantly reduces the cost of preserving law and order. As an example, let us consider the most common surveillance mechanism – CCTV cameras. A study sponsored by Campbell Collaboration found that CCTV resulted in a 51 percent decrease in crimes committed in parking lots, and a 23 percent decrease in crime on public transportation systems. Even in the cases where crimes are not prevented, CCTV helps greatly in leading investigation in the right direction by providing vital visual clues. Any kind of surveillance comes with the double benefits of prevention of crime and helping the victims obtain justice quicker.

Mass surveillance of phone calls, texts and emails at the governmental level, however, is a different issue altogether. While it is helpful in the prevention and control of crime as mentioned before, it is also an instrument in itself for committing crimes against the persons or organizations who end up on the wrong side of the government. Recently, the Home Secretary of the United Kingdom, in her article in The Telegraph, said that “real people” don’t need end-to-end encryption feature, and that tech companies should do more to help the authorities deal with security threats. Such thoughtless comments from people holding high offices reveal the sad state of affairs. Encryption is an effective safeguard to hold off hackers and bots that sniff around on the Internet for your private information and money, and turning it off would prove to be disastrous, resulting in crimes far more in number and severity than those which could not be detected due to encrypted communication.

Another question that arises at this juncture is, if the companies can hand over our data to the government as the NSA leaks proved, why trust them with our personal information in the first place? This is exactly the question that the Supreme Court of India asked recently, again in connection with the impending case over the constitutionality of Aadhaar. In many cases, the average user is not aware of how and where the information shared by him is stored. Open source platforms and software could be one answer to this, which enables one to examine the inner workings of storage and communication services.

One could argue that mass surveillance is a weapon, and that like all other weapons, it is not inherently good or bad – that it is purely the purpose for which it is used that makes it good or bad. While this comparison is true to an extent, the scale of the weapon in this case is massive, whose demolishing power extends beyond that of any bomb yet known to humankind, if one considers the demographic affected by it. Finding a middle ground seems to be the only viable option, but it is easier said than done. We certainly do not need a future where Big Brother watches every move made and every word spoken by each of us. What can be done is to encourage dialogue between governments, technology researchers, companies, and human rights firms over how to tackle this issue. We need international laws to safeguard the privacy of individuals in this era of technological advancements. We need to have international regulations and guidelines as to in what ways and to what extent governments can perform mass surveillance. More importantly, it needs to be made sure that such laws are actually put into practice everywhere in the world.

Quoting the following statement by David Brin seems to be the apt way to conclude this discussion:

“When it comes to privacy and accountability, people always demand the former for themselves and the latter for everyone else.”

Share your thoughts as comments! 🙂