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RIP Privacy: India, China, US And The World War For Data

RIP Privacy: India, China, US And The World War For Data

Revelations of the global surveillance infrastructure by a slew of whistleblowers and the potential weaponisation of data has created a perverse atmosphere where privacy is just a figment of the imagination

With a ban on Huawei in the US and other parts of the world, and India’s ban on 100+ Chinese apps, countries around the world have taken steps to cut China’s influence on the global tech ecosystem to size

With privacy-ending surveillance on the rise, the current wave of data protectionism around the world seems like a self-serving idea on the part of authorities, even as privately governments have tried every trick in the book to spy on citizens

After years of planning, the Indian government set up the Centralised Monitoring System in 2015 to automate the process of lawful interception & monitoring of telecommunications.

So, how many phones are being tapped just by the central government? Journalist Saikat Dutta had tweeted in 2018,

“A few years ago I filed an RTI asking how many phones are tapped at the federal/central level annually? The answer, under RTI from MHA: 100,000!”

While the Indian government didn’t produce the actual number of existing phone taps when asked in the Rajya Sabha on November 20, 2019, the bigger question is — Are the concerned authorities following the due notification process in every case?

Well, that’s just in the case of phone tapping, in 2018, India’s home affairs ministry had also authorised ten central agencies and bodies to intercept, monitor, and decrypt any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer under the Section 69 (1) of the Information Technology Act, 2000 and Rule 4 of the Information Technology (Procedure and safeguard for Monitoring and Collecting Traffic Data or Information) Rules.

And in 2020, the government is cracking down on Chinese apps, with the express intention of protecting the data sovereignty of India, the same data which the Indian government is looking to intercept and monitor. This twist of irony brings up the oft-asked question — can freedom and security co-exist without either getting diluted?

The story of global mass surveillance delves much deeper and in fact draws a much spooky picture of the freedom and privacy under the garb of security. This story makes it clear that while publicly countries may be opposed to the surveillance of citizens by foreign nations, privately the surveillance infrastructure is a coterie of superpowers, with the less economically-powerful nations left with no option but to comply. In fact, global mass surveillance is nigh impossible without such cooperation. And the collateral damage is privacy and individual freedom.

How The Fight For Privacy Was Ignited

As it often happens with major movements and revolutions, the fight for online privacy and against global surveillance began with something no one saw coming. Seven years ago, on June 6, 2013, a pair of seemingly innocuous news stories were published simultaneously in The Guardian in the UK and the Washington Post in the US.

Based on information obtained from the same source, the two reports spoke about rampant spying on US citizens by the country’s government in collusion with telecom carriers. A few days later, the source came forward and identified himself as Edward Snowden, a contractor for the National Security Agency, who had leaked a treasure trove of documents detailing the tactics, strategy and technology used by the most powerful governments in the world to spy on everyone — without exception.

Rest, as they say, would have been history.

Except that, it’s not. It’s the present, the future and anything but the past.

While Snowden is often credited as the man who set the discourse around privacy, it was Julian Assange-founded Wikileaks which encouraged whistleblowers world over like Reality Winner, Katherine Gun and Chelsea Manning in getting secret documents out including Snowden’s.

Since its inception in 2006, Wikileaks has published over 10 Mn documents, detailing the mass surveillance programmes run by various government agencies such as NSA, CIA and GCHQ of the US and the UK respectively. This immediately set the discourse to drawing a line between the right to privacy and the authorised power of intelligence agencies eroding it under the garb of the war against terror.

Sculpture of Assange, Snowden, and Manning at Freedom Park, Berlin | Source: RT

As time passed, the debate got wider.

In 2017, the US office of National Intelligence consisting of FBI, NSA and CIA submitted a detailed report over Russian involvement in 2016 US presidential elections concluding that Russian President Vladimir Putin “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election”  with payments made in Bitcoin to hide the source.

Later, in 2018, the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal further exposed the ocean model that was used to change people’s minds during the elections, especially those considered swing votes. This startling revelation made it clear that not only are governments snooping on citizens, keeping an eye on everything online, but are also weaponising the very same data to use against the citizens. It’s not just the US — Cambridge Analytica offered its services all over the world, including in India, and today operates under the name Emerdata, after Cambridge Analytica was forced to wind down in the business in the wake of global inquiries.

This sequence of events completely changed the discourse around the data and that’s even before we venture into the uncertain world of artificial intelligence, machine learning and automation.

Data that helps build a deeper effective AI can also be weaponised by those with vested interests, to the extent that Tesla founder Elon Musk had said back in 2014, “AI is potentially more dangerous than nukes.”

After being one of the founding members of the open-source OpenAI programme in 2015, Musk walked away over supposed ethical reasons. However, OpenAI has continued its work and as shown through the release of the Generative Pre-training Transformer-3 (GPT-3), it has taken things to the next level. 

Clearly, the revelations of the global data surveillance infrastructure and the potential weaponisation of the data has had a cataclysmic effect on the global internet ecosystem and the current wave of data protectionism, anti-globalisation sentiments around tech products and services. But among a certain class of experts, activists and political leaders, the debate is centred around data protection and more stringent privacy laws. Who will win this round?

The War On Drugs, Terror & Privacy

Speaking to Inc42, Menny Barzilay, Tel Aviv-based cybersecurity strategist and former CISO said,

“I would say that it is more than war on information. It is war on our reality. Today, governments and global enterprises understand the true power in data. With the right data-driven algorithms, various actors can manipulate people’s perceptions and opinions.”

People believe that they are in control of their mind and their data. Yet, many academic experiments have proven time and again that people can be easily manipulated. Barzilay recommended the book — Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, which says that such experiments reveal that we all share the same cognitive biases and heuristics. And these can be exploited.

In fact, through concerted global ‘wars’, governments have routinely exploited the emotions and manipulated sentiments — whether it be the war on drugs in the 1980s and 1990s, the war on terror in the early 2000s or the most recent and unstated ‘war on privacy’, which is being run on the garb of security and safety.

“The ability to collect large amounts of data on each and every one of us, enables various actors to analyze this data in order to automatically build a psychological profile for each of us (like in the Cambridge Analytica case). This profile will not only include information about our worldviews but will also reveal what would be the best way to affect our perception and decision making. So, today’s war on data is a crucial one. We should rapidly develop our discussion on ethics in the use of data.”

Data is fast enabling an ecosystem of technologies — cryptography, ML, AI, IoT, and more — that are making people more malleable and easy to manipulate, but they have also given immense capabilities to the governments which they wield to get their way.

Meanwhile, the development of law and regulations, as it usually happens, is too slow to ensure stringent implementation and enforcement of privacy laws. In fact, the process is made so deliberately complicated with thousands of stakeholders involved, that by the time the law is passed, it’s not only outdated, but technology has far surpassed the limitations that the law was hoping to enforce.

Justifying his act of leaking classified National Security Agency and Central Intelligence Agency files in 2013, Snowden later wrote in his autobiography Permanent Record wrote,

“On one end, the US recognises privacy as a fundamental right, on the other end, it is insanely practising universal mass surveillance.”

Beyond the obvious pitfalls of mass surveillance and the data wars, what bewilders us is that the following questions need to be asked, but these are the times we live in:

How comfortable are you with the idea that your email, your images are being read by someone? It could be hackers who may demand a ransom later, or it could be internal or foreign intelligence agencies. Whether used against you or not, does anyone have the right to snoop into your communication and photographs, even if you may feel you have nothing to hide?

Whatever your answer is, the reality is you have no choice. The data is already up for grabs by governments around the world the moment it is created.

Global Surveillance Collusion: How Countries Help Spy On Their Citizens

With selected data being shared among the intelligence agencies of various countries such as among Five Eyes, the global surveillance system is no longer isolated to each country. If one seeks a relatable analogy, it’s like a cartel, with the most powerful nations being the godfathers.

Besides, spying on eminent foreigners through various means has been an established traditional approach.

Back in 2012, a Tencent employee was found spying on over a hundred of Indian PCs including those belonging to scientists, so it won’t be an exaggeration to say that while we have been at the cusp of World War III lately, there’s always been a war going on, particularly in the form of data wars or the war for information, and one who has more access has the upper hand.

This collaborative nature of surveillance has been recently tested with massive geopolitical tensions stretching across the globe — from the US to China to China and India and between Russia and the Western world.

If at the turn of the last century, data surveillance and information could help thwart German missiles in the second World War as Andrew Hodges describes in his biography of legendary cryptographer and computer scientist Alan Turing, it’s the other way around today. As Barzilay puts it, today the war is on a virtual plain rather than in the real world.

The Huawei Conundrum: Why China Is Being Cut To Size

Data wars involve collision, collusion, conspiracy as well as economic and trade implications among the vested parties. And we saw this in play as India amended its FDI policies to control increasing Chinese direct investments, banned over 100 Chinese apps (with more likely to follow) and kickstarted a nationwide movement on the ‘Vocal for Local’ trope.

However, India didn’t make these decisions in isolation.

December 1, 2018, Buenos Aires: As US President Donald Trump was dining with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 Summit, discussing trade between the two countries, little did they know that sitting next them on the table, the White House national security adviser John Bolton was simultaneously orchestrating the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wangzhou, daughter of Huawei founder and chairman Ren Zenghfei at the Vancouver International Airport by the Canadian Border Services Agency which would derail trade between US and China completely.

Wangzhou has been in house arrest at her Vancouver residence since December 2018, facing extradition to the US on 29 counts mainly for sanction violations and stealing trade secrets. This was one of the few incidents which immediately triggered and intensified the trade war to another level. Along with Huawei, ZTE, DJI, ByteDance and a slew of other Chinese companies are facing a phase out across the major markets in the world including India, the US, the UK, Australia, EU and other countries. The US department of commerce has recently added another 33 Chinese companies to its entry list.

Unlike the past, when war made everyday life perilous, this slow-burning data war requires citizens to be asleep to the fact that there is indeed a war going on. The Five Eyes nations, India, China, Pakistan, Israel, Russia and many other countries have been engaged in a prolonged war for decades. The notion that the cold war is over has only on paper and while armed conflicts will likely be avoided, it’s impossible to avoid the information wars.

The very existence of intelligence architecture such as PRISM, Five Eyes, Skynet, India’s CMS tells us that power centres feel invading people’s privacy day and night is actually part of governance. In fact, governments have told this lie so often that to them it seems like the truth, but as with anything that involves the flexing of authoritative muscles, it’s the weakest that will suffer first and foremost in this war.

Huawei’s Wangzhou is not alone in the dock for allegedly stealing trade secrets on behalf of China. The story of Chinese-American businesswoman codenamed Parlour Maid a.k.a Katrina Leung an FBI informer proved double agent having over two decades of love and sex affair with multiple FBI agents, Taiwanese American nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, accused of stealing a highly sophisticated nuclear warhead W88 design and handing over to China and the latest of Juan Tang, a Chinese scientist accused of hiding her ties with Chinese military are only a few honourable mentions. The hands go much deeper.

This is also partly due to the nature of media freedom and democracies the US and UK have. China does not have this barrier. No democracy, no accountability. Offshore investments in companies run by Chinese nationals living abroad have been siphoned off and utilised for the benefits of Communist Party of China. Chinese companies have been alleged to have been instrumental in data espionage by the Chinese government abroad.

Today, if Chinese companies are being phased out by all the major countries across the world, there are ample reasons behind it. Back in 2012, Trend Micro had published a report which found a Tencent employee Gu Kaiyuan behind a massive data espionage programme being carried out in India, Japan and Taiwan.

While the Chinese government disavowed Gu Kaiyuan, according to the New York Times, the techniques and the victims point to a state-sponsored campaign. Gu apparently had also recruited students to work on the university’s research involving computer attacks and defense.

Besides hacking Tibetan spiritual figurehead Dalai Lama’s emails, a malicious document containing information on India’s ballistic missile defense program was used to lure potential victims into opening it. It contained malicious code that exploited a vulnerability in Microsoft Office to drop trojan malware onto a compromised system which would then connect to a command and control server.

According to an India Today report, as the India-China border dispute escalated, there have been thousands of attacks on various NIC-hosted websites which have been thwarted. “Many of the known hackers are established fronts of the Chinese government,” said an IT ministry official.

However, the hacking is just a diversion, believes the Indian government, as no top-secret data is uploaded on these websites. Though, hacking personal computers of scietisting, stealing ballistic missiles’ design is critical in nature. It could very well be that many systems are infected with dormant malware that is only activated for DDoS attacks.

Besides escalating a war-like situation at the border, the major portion of Chinese offence to India has been economic and data espionage. With investments in all the major tech startups and slowly tightening its grip over other powerful sectors such as banking, media & entertainment, edtech, construction and pharma, China has been able to not only monitor India’s market and technology developments but in a way is controlling it, says experts.

This is dangerous not only for a country getting indirectly controlled by the other country via its resources but also for users. Majority of Indian internet users were using mostly the Chinese mobiles and Chinese apps such as PUBG, Tiktok, ShareIT, Camscanner and so on until recently, before the ban on some of them.

Being smartphone-oriented, the data generated by all of these apps are first hand and if used together, this would allow one to know about

  • The apps being used by Indians, including fintech apps and credit data through SMSes
  • Controlling user behaviour and data consumption
  • Controlling the supply of products that Indian consumers prefer
  • Map demographic data in a given area through data analytics
  • Control political narrative through apps by using the mapped data

This is not a covert war anymore. Recently, Chinese Ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye was found actively involved in getting a slew of articles published in Australian media to berate the citizens there into thanking Beijing for Australia’s economic success.

Speaking to Inc42, former Infosys CFO and partner, Aarin Capital Mohandas Pai had earlier indicated that China is also trying to control the technology developments and its market in India.

“Many of the startups which have Chinese investments today hold their board meetings in China. There is no clarity over where the data is stored. Is our data going to China, we don’t know. So, the Chinese influence is very strong. And, that’s why we may need such policies,” — Pai said.

Chinese companies do not have a choice if the government of the day there asks them to hand over all the data.

Article 14 of National Intelligence Law of China makes it mandatory for Chinese to provide necessary support, assistance and cooperation if required by Chinese intelligence agencies.

None of the Chinese companies such as Huawei, ByteDance or others has ever admitted that the data is being shared with Beijing. The Indian government also asked all of its departments to cancel the contracts with Chinese companies that are under process. Following India’s ban on over 106 Chinese apps, the US, UK, Australia and many other countries too have taken similar actions to cut China to the size.

Barzilay added, “Companies share data with governments. That’s an established fact. And it happens everywhere. This is almost impossible to change. Our options will either be creating a global treaty in which all countries commit not to take information from business companies, or create global peace so data collection will not be relevant anymore. I’m sure everyone understands that the chances for each to happen are not that great.”

Among the reasons behind Chinese companies being phased out across the world are:

  • Chinese laws such as National Intelligence Laws internet firms provide detailed logs on users as part of a new policy designed to curb dissent and online social movements.
  • Affiliations with Chinese military
  • Opaque shareholding of companies such as in Huawei
  • Complicit in human rights violations and abuses committed in China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, forced labor and high-technology surveillance against Uighurs in Xinjiang

Besides, the most prominent reason for the ongoing data war is the advent of 5G and the Chinese lead in this matter which gives the companies an obvious edge, given the cost-effectiveness they offer. The importance of 5G could be understood by the fact that simply the construction of 5G networks will require an estimated investment of over $2.7 Tn globally in 2020 alone. India is looking to forge a China-free 5G future given the recent statements from the government on Chinese companies. But does India have a leg to stand on when it comes to accusing other countries of rampant data collection

That Thing Called ‘Privacy’ And The India Internet

The data wars are not limited to countries. The intelligence agencies of countries across the world have been monitoring almost every influential person and collecting information about them to be able to prevent them from taking any big anti-government stance. If China today has been allegedly hacking the emails and private calls of the Dalai Lama, in the past, great personalities such as Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin and Martin Luther King Jr were constantly under the US/UK agencies’ scrutiny.

In the excellent, “The Einstein File: J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret War Against the World’s Most Famous Scientist”, Fred Jerome goes into detail on how the FBI in the US kept an eye on Einstein, which included tapping his phone calls. The aim was to somehow link him with communism and hence malign his credibility by calling him an agent of Russia. By the time Einstein died, the FBI had a 1,427-page dossier on him alone.

If the online data of citizens today is ever memorialised on print, it would take up a lot more than 1,427 pages for each individual, let alone public personalities. The Pegasus WhatsApp spyware from Israel made a huge uproar worldwide including India. The spyware which secretly extracts a user’s private data, including passwords, contact lists, calendar events, text messages, and even voice calls was targeting over 1,400 people globally and 121 people in India, as confirmed by Facebook last year.  This may have included the world’s richest man Jeff Bezos — if the rich and powerful cannot avoid surveillance, what hope do plebs have?

What’s interesting is that the NSO Group, the spyware maker, later clarified that the spyware is only sold to government authorities. And soon after, pretty much every government came down hard on the company.

India's Deep Surveillance Infrastructure With Central Monitoring System At The Centre

In India, a WhatsApp spyware should be the least of the citizens’ worries. The government has also set up a Centralised Monitoring System (CMS) for ‘lawful interception’ and monitoring of mobile phones, landlines and internet traffic through mobile networks. The Narendra Modi government has also set up a National Security Council, which is chaired by Modi himself and four other ministries  — external affairs ministry, finance ministry, defence ministry and the home ministry. The secretary general of this council is National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval.

Explaining the same, National Cyber Security Coordinator Lt Gen Rajesh Pant told Medianama, “The aim is to advise this Council in overseeing and compliance of all the cybersecurity aspects including implementation of action plans in cybersecurity by the nodal agencies, evaluation and analysis of incidents, then forming incident response monitoring teams. There’s a training part also. There’s an aspect of international forums and providing consultation and guidance to state governments. And also engage with the private industry for formulation of policies.”

Besides, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) has also floated a fresh request for proposals for an automatic face recognition system (AFRS). The AFRS will be a centralised web application hosted at the NCRB Data Centre in Delhi with DR (Disaster Recovery) in a non-seismic zone which will be made available for access to all the police stations of the country.

The latest developments related to policies such as the draft Personal Data Protection Bill will only empower the government to fetch one’s personal data at any time, even without consent, in the case of law enforcement agencies.

However, when it comes to global practices of mass surveillance, India is far behind the US, the UK, Russia and China. And in the global scheme of things, India is somewhat subservient to the powerhouses — an enabler rather than a controller. Of course, with Reliance Jio making moves to enter Western markets as well as looking at an IPO in the US, the power dynamics in the global surveillance nexus are likely to shift in the near future. Jio has also earned the badge of being a clean telco form the US, which again might allow India to have greater say on the table.

Selected Country Wise List of Intelligence Projects Targeting Mass Surveillance

While the story of India is new and 21st century, the story of collaboration between the US and the UK in surveillance dates back to 1941 when a secret treaty was signed between both the countries called the Atlantic Charter which later became the UKUSA Security Agreement and was extended to encompass Canada, Australia, and New Zealand called Five Eyes.

The Five Eyes has now become Fourteen Eyes including Germany, Belgium, Italy, France, Sweden, Denmark and some other countries. And, as part of the agreement, among the Five Eyes (FVEY) in particular, intelligence agencies help each other share the other countries surveillance data circumventing their own laws.

Last year, the US and the UK had even signed an accord, under Cloud Act that will allow their agencies to force tech companies to turn over electronic communications regardless of which country the data is stored in. This is important given the fact that the US agencies are legally not allowed to snoop on its own citizens and the same is the case with the UK.

This particularly happened after 9/11, since then most of the data has got digital, and the intelligence agencies used 9/11 as an opportunity to gain more access to one’s private information, argued Snowden.

Some of the programmes and systems that have been run by the US, UK intelligence agencies are ECHELON, MUSCULAR, PRISM, X-Keyscore, Upstream among others. Approved under the highly secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court or FISA, US, the much-publicised top-secret PRISM programme allowed the NSA to gain access from nine Internet companies to a wide range of digital information, including e-mails and stored data, on foreign targets operating outside the US.

The PRISM Mechanism

The NSA’s XKEYSCORE programme for instance almost searches everything that a user does on the internet. As published by The Guardian first, there were a staggering 850 Bn “call events” collected and stored in the NSA databases, and close to 150bn internet records. Each day, the document says, 1-2 Bn records were added. And that was back in 2007, before Jio brought millions of Indians online and burgeoned the pool of data. This sharply puts into contrast the relatively lightweight FBI dossier on Einstein.

NSA could also read the content of all emails as well as private chat messages such Facebook Chats. These programmes were so dangerous that Snowden said,

“You could read anyone’s email in the world, anybody you’ve got an email address for. Any website: You can watch traffic to and from it. Any computer that an individual sits at: You can watch it. Any laptop that you’re tracking: you can follow it as it moves from place to place throughout the world. It’s a one-stop-shop for access to the NSA’s information. … You can tag individuals … Let’s say you work at a major German corporation and I want access to that network, I can track your username on a website on a forum somewhere, I can track your real name, I can track associations with your friends and I can build what’s called a fingerprint, which is network activity unique to you, which means you can be tracked anywhere you go in the world, anywhere you try to sort of hide your online presence, your identity.”

But can’t there be a fine balance between privacy and mass surveillance?

Generally speaking, mass surveillance systems are built to protect people. Barzilay elaborated, the question is not whether we need these systems (we do), but what is the acceptable way to implement and use them. On the one hand, citizens have very high demands from our governments in terms of security to find terrorists and stop incidents. On the other hand, they get angry when governments use mass surveillance programmes.

“And here we go back to the question of ethics and the correct way to use data. It is important to understand that there are no right or wrong answers here. Everyone has their own views and perspective on what should be the balance between privacy and security. Some people value privacy more than anything. Others are concerned about their own safety.”

Why India’s Personal Data Protection Law Is Toothless

“If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry.”

That’s the layman argument. Glenn Greenwald, the US journalist with whom Edward Snowden chose to share the top secret NSA files, counters this notion. “Every single time somebody has said to me, ‘I don’t worry about the invasions of privacy because I don’t have anything to hide, I asked them to email me their all emails and passwords. Not a single time any person has taken me up to that offer,” he said.

Snowden often bemoaned the fact that he might not have had to take the drastic step had it been for better privacy laws. As ironic as this seems given his eventual relocation to Russia and the protection from the authoritarian Russian government, there’s more than grain of truth in this

India is no different from the US. There’s no privacy law here either to enshrine citizen’s privacy as a fundamental right. The draft Personal Data Protection Bill which in 2018 made quite a buzz among stakeholders, has had its teeth pulled out even before it was presented in the parliament for the discussion.

The allegation has come from none other than the chairman of its drafting committee Justice BN Srikrishna. Speaking to Inc42, Justice Srikrishna stated that there are at least five points which make the latest draft bill radically different from what was submitted initially.

“First and foremost what bothers me is the security part of it. What we had suggested was that the government access to an individual’s data in only extraordinary circumstances which must be specified by the Parliament. They have now changed it to the extent where the Government can any time access the data. That is very worrisome.”

Further, Justice Srikrishna added that the composition of the proposed Data Protection Authority has been diluted, the degree of autonomy has been reduced and made in the favour of the government.

“Although this is supposed to be a personal data protection act, they have also introduced one Section which says, non-personal data can also be accessed by the government. I don’t understand this. The draft itself is about Personal Data Protection, why would they bring in non-personal data without any context,” he told us.

The Draft Personal Data Protection Bill Clause 91(2) says that the central government may, in consultation with the DPA, direct any data fiduciary or data processor to provide any personal data anonymised or other non-personal data to enable better targeting of delivery of services or formulation of evidence-based policies by the government, in such manner as may be prescribed.

The Aarogya Setu app has become another for the government to track anyone under the garb of the Disaster Management Act, which Justice Srikrishna said is completely illegal.

Alter Ego Power Centres: East Vs West

There are communists governments like Chinese and North Korean which do what they do regardless of the worldview. Then there are ‘powerful demagogues’ in the name of great democracies like the US, the UK, and India where even if the government will be seen advocating for people’s right to privacy day and night, privately the government would be commissioning some secret projects of mass surveillance — snooping on millions and millions to catch a few hundred.

One of the biggest justifications for giving intelligence agencies across the world, the unrestricted access to one’s personal data has been to stop big mishaps before it happens.

As noble as intentions may be, the end result may become far removed from the original goal. Just take a look at China’s way of tackling religious tensions and conflict in the Xinjiang region. Many have compared the Chinese ‘reeducation camps’ in this part of the country to the concentration camps run by Nazi Germany under Hitler in the second world war.

For over a decade, Xinjiang has been the most policed area in the world. The police have installed CCTVs at the front and back doors of almost all the houses. They have listed around 75 parameters which determine how religious a person is, among which are parameters such as storing food at home, having a quran at home and other basic necessities. Such people are then sent to detention camps which China calls reeducation camps.

The detention camps are so horrendous that if you take more than the assigned two minutes in the toilet you will be treated with electric shocks and in return you have to say ‘Thank You Teacher, I won’t be late next time’, a former detainee was quoted saying in a BBC report.

As part of its mega surveillance project SKYNET, China has also installed voice recognition systems and face recognition systems to monitor people across the country. This was widely implemented to curb the Hong Kong protests.

But let’s face the truth, China is no different than India or the US. The US ran detention centres at borders and jailed little children while separating them from their parents just to crack down on immigration. Similarly, India is building detention camps too for the hugely-controversial Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Registry of Citizens. If anything, India’s move is unabashedly borrowed from China. And of course the role of online data in cracking down on dissenters is well publicised in many other countries.

The problem with the idea of focussing only on China or the US or India is that the truth is clearly not in sync with it. It is very much in the interest of governments and the global surveillance-industrial complex to keep monitoring going, and even if many citizens may not feel that their privacy has been trampled, the government-big tech nexus has reduced citizens to mere voters and consumers.

And, reading the Orwellian literature, we all thought as if it was a satire, though it’s very real. And, if that’s the new normal, words like democracy, privacy, fundamental rights amid this new form of world war in the AI-age need to be redefined.

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