WION 9 Jun 2017

Do you feel the gaze? We all are being watched 

by Zeba Khan

It first happened in 2009, again in 2012 and then it repeated itself in 2016. Three times in a span of seven years, Shah Rukh Khan, the Indian films actor was detained at the US airport and no form of wealth, success or fame could help him evade this situation.

Have you ever wondered what went wrong with a man who has achieved globally acknowledged stardom? Do you buy into the logic of it just being plain and regular protocol?

Well, what happened to Shah Rukh Khan was not just an unfortunate incident but also a part of a larger mesh of issues concerning privacy, security and safety, both online and offline. It is the outcome of surveillance in the digital age where data points are fed to the system, while grossly ignoring everything about the personality and character of an individual.

In Khan’s case, every other factor of him being a superstar, who travels in a business class, is loved by people all around the world was superseded by the data points that matched to someone who has a criminal history or can trigger false alarms. The data points that were picked up were: male, Muslim name, Indian, and from a certain age.

Now imagine Brad Pitt coming to India and being taken aside as a potential terrorist. This is how dangerous our world is today. The image that these systems have of us is warped and is just based on these data points that are monitored by intelligence agencies. According to this, all of us can fall into one category or another and be framed for something we have not committed.

The Constant Gaze

Anja Kovacs who directs The Internet Democracy Project in India focuses on the Internet and human rights issues. The movement discusses the interplay of issues that most of us choose to ignore, of a state of constant surveillance, data privacy issues and government control of access and usage of the Internet.

She says, “India is not an exceptional situation but because it’s a diverse country—contradictions and inequalities are visible here. Challenges are more in your face here. Context is more visible.”

In this context, she talks about how surveillance functions. She says, “The way it actually works is that somebody is watching you but what it essentially aims to do, is to police norms. Those who set these norms are often the ones who are watching and they decide how those who are being watched should behave. The thing about norms is that people say that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear but all of this would be on the wrong side of the norm at some point. In the case of Shahrukh Khan, the information about him was denuded in such a way that the data points that did show up flagged him as a potential threat, even if he had not done anything.”

Discussing the nitty-gritty and compulsions of living in the digital age, we came to the conclusion that surveillance is more rampant now as more cameras are being put in place everywhere and more number of companies are tracking us online—and that makes us all very uncomfortable.

What’s dangerous for a democracy to sustain, is that the government has access to all our data and whether they have a good reason or not, they continue to watch us.

Game of Algorithms

Anja adds, “They won’t go and check what I am talking about but if I talk about terrorism too often, and I am connected to other people who are talking about terrorism then at some point they might start looking into my profile. For example, there has been a case in New York where a family found the US government joint terrorism task force at its doorstep because they had been googling the phrases ‘pressure cooker bomb’ and ‘backpack’. The law enforcement agencies picked up on a white middle-class American family of parents and one small kid for googling those phrases. For the agencies, this flashed as an indication that they were likely to be making a bomb. Imagine the US police force wearing black suits entering a private property only to find nothing.

“This happens in a corporate scenario as well but the consequences aren’t the same. Facebook cannot throw you in jail but they along with other corporations are trying to shape your behaviour in insidious ways, to try and get us to do certain things. That’s why at one point last year; Facebook had announced that they are tweaking their algorithms, as people are not sharing enough personal updates. We don’t know whether they were successful in getting people to share but we do know that Facebook wanted people to share more, as they wanted to do something.

“It’s dangerous to see what they can do with the algorithms, like how they use it to drive political campaigns during elections and move towards targeted campaigns. In America for example, in this year’s elections, if we were seen as potential Trump supporters and possible voters, the messages we would get would be different because our profiles are different, unlike the earlier times when potential voters of a single party would receive same messaging.”

But not all is negative in this forever connected world. Surveillance vests power in the watcher and using this, the dynamics can change with different actors at play. She narrates how some slum colonies in Delhi where riots happened used surveillance as a tool for their benefit. The community itself bought CCTV cameras because they got fed up with the police arresting boys from the neighbourhood and blaming them for riots while according to the locals, the actual violence was committed by people outside of the community. She says, “They wanted to be in a situation where they can provide proof in future instances, so they reversed the gaze.”

While surveillance continues at every level, be it in the workplace or public spaces; the kind that government indulges in online, is always riskier. The government of any country has the right to keep a check but it “ideally should happen only after the State has a suspicion on a person of a crime or any such affiliation”. In earlier times, the system didn’t necessarily work but “at least in theory there were some checks and balances that didn’t give enormous power to those doing the watching”.

Anja adds, “It means that as a society we have less and less control over setting the norms because somebody has set the norm and if we behave out of it, we will be penalised. We are not only just expecting it to happen but are more conscious and aware of our surroundings—how to behave in public spaces, what to say on social media, what data to pull out and etc.”

How Open is the Internet?

A part of a movement that aims to make the Internet free and a democratic space for all, Anja explains that there is also something called nudging in public policy. Facebook also does nudging through tweaks to the algorithms so that they can incentivise you to do particular things.

Similarly, the Planning Commission of India, Niti Aayog also has a nudging unit now. She says, “What they want to do is to use data of popular government schemes and tweak them slightly so that more people can benefit from the policies. So nudging can be used for positive means as well but you can easily use it for negative purposes.

“There is no idea of what is being done with our data and who keeps a check. So it’s not just the traditional form of surveillance where they are watching people to catch them when they do something wrong but it’s really also about the insidious ways in which they are shaping the society, shaping people to do stuff without them knowing. As citizens, that’s a problem.”

While surveillance is an issue that needs urgent attention and scope for active and open discussions, there is also a big question around how open the Internet really is?

Anja simply answers that it depends on ways on how you use the Internet. She says, “There are still some ways of using the Internet that is much more decentralised where you have more control on your data but it’s a little bit more complex. There’s a reason why so many of us ended up on platforms like Facebook and Twitter as they made sharing of content so easy. But it’s true that there has been a shift to more and more centralisation on the Internet even though the technology remains decentralised.”

She emphasises on focusing on how these big companies are trying to escape regulations everywhere and how they are able to become so big without anybody questioning them. She adds, “Even Microsoft was put into antitrust regulations in the late 90’s because they had bundled Explorer in every system. Explorer is still installed in every Windows system but we now have the choice of using or not using it. Managing a very strong presence in browsers they had left users with no option. People complained that Microsoft was forcing them to use their own ecosystems in too many ways. The reason as to why many use Firefox or Chrome instead of Explorer is as a result of that.”

Cyber Security

When online we are usually privy to the eyes of many, even after checks and balances have been put in place. This concern gives fodder to cyber security, a term that is often used when talking about online safety for the weak and vulnerable.

Anja, however, is not pleased with the existing discourse on cyber security. She says, “The way it is present now—don’t do this, don’t do that is not helpful and it starts to become more like what we see in the offline space. Don’t wear this when you are out, don’t be out in the night etc., whereas if we want to make the Internet a safe place this is not the right approach. It’s good to be conscious of what you are sharing, who you are sharing it with. You have to be smart. But there is no one-size-fits-all approach and currently, that is what it sounds like. We have to learn basics of risk assessment, to think about what are the threats in my life, actors that I should be worried about.

“We have seen in many accounts that parents are complaining about how their children have no sense of privacy and they also complain about children not sharing enough with them. So, clearly the children have a sense of privacy but who they see as threat actors while who their parents think are threat actors are completely different. As children, they see their parents as threat actors and stop sharing information with them. Parents think random strangers are threat actors.”

This also emboldens the fact that people must understand the consequences of what they do online and take informed decisions. Lurking dangers of the new-age technology are glaring and it is upon us to make informed choices, to completely avoid or at least diminish the loss value attached to any attack via the Internet.

Starting in 2011, The Internet Democracy Project has been focusing on the Internet and human rights issues. Their focus is on bringing together the domain of technology with ideas of democracy and social justice. However, in a world where authoritarian tendencies trump democratic values and promises of social justice are yet to be realised, it is a still a long road before misuses of technology can be stopped by bringing in more accountability in the surveillance system.

Originally published in WION.