by Arun Kumar

For Their Eyes Only

Jun 17, 20134 mins

Most governments and some organizations are using IT to play Big Brother. Are technological advancements and legislative indifference pushing privacy to extinction?

With the progress in technology, which admittedly no one should grudge, what hope does the common man have about protecting his or her individual privacy?

In the movie Ocean’s Eleven, there is a scene towards the end when Julia Roberts tells Andy Garcia, “You of all people should know that in your hotel there is always someone watching.” How ironic that what happens in reel life is transpiring in real life.

For those of you not fully acquainted with the latest happenings, here is a primer on some recent revelations. The US government, through a top-secret programme called PRISM, has got direct access to the servers of Internet giants such as Apple, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Skype, AOL, Facebook etcetera, which allows government officials to collect material—including search history, e-mail content, file transfers, live chats, and more. Not just that. There is also a top-secret court order compelling telecom provider Verizon to turn over the telephone records of millions of US customers.

These details were revealed by the UK newspaper The Guardian. And what is interesting is that this program is not something new. It has been in existence since 2007. It’s just that we are finding about it after six years.

Though all the companies whose servers are being tapped for private or confidential data—according to The Guardian—vehemently deny knowledge of any such program, the fact is that with or without their knowledge, such an operation has been going on for the last six years.

However, make no mistake. This kind of snooping is not just limited to the US government—which ostensibly in its quest to gather all possible information to track terrorist activities is—trampling all over an individual’s privacy.

Almost every government worth its salt does similar things. The only difference is that while some are sophisticated and secretive in their approach, others, like the Indian government, are simply blatant and arrogant about it. And we would be naïve to believe that only governments engage in these kinds of activities. Businesses are not far behind and are equally guilty of the same.

However, what makes this kind of a “Big Brother” activity possible is the advancement in technology, which enables faster, easier, and ironically, even secure communications. At the same time, the very technology also provides governments or big businesses with deep pockets and even deeper connections with access to personal and private communication details of unsuspecting citizens.

This was highlighted about a dozen years ago in 2000 by A. Michael Froomkin, professor of Law at the University of Miami School of Law, in a paper aptly titled The Death of Privacy?, published in the Stanford Law Review. In his paper, Froomkin states, “The rapid deployment of privacy-destroying technologies by governments and businesses threatens to make informational privacy obsolete.”

He goes on to describe a range of current technologies and activities to which the law has yet to respond effectively, which include routine collection of transactional data, automated surveillance in public places, and deployment of biometric technology among others. He concludes by saying, “Given the rapid pace at which privacy-destroying technologies are being invented and deployed, a legal response must come soon, or it will indeed be too late.”

And since the paper was published, the use of technology to monitor, track, and analyze almost every movement and communication of people has only increased. Just imagine the number of cameras that are installed at airports, traffic signals, inside and outside public and private buildings, the various databases like National Population Register, UID, and wiretaps like Radia tapes. And surely, there are more such examples.

But, in which direction have the legislations progressed since then? Unfortunately, in the exact opposite direction. Governments are only enacting laws that require citizens to divulge more data or give the government the right to snoop—such as the FISA Amendments Act in the case of the US government.

So, with the progress in technology, which admittedly no one should grudge, and no hope in sight as far as laws and regulations are concerned, what hope does the common man  have about protecting his or her individual privacy?

Well, the answer is simple—in today’s world there is no such thing as privacy. It’s dead. You can only run, but can’t hide.Remember, there is always someone watching, and perhaps even listening.

Arun Kumar is Executive Editor, IDG Media. Send feedback to


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