While the inception of surveillance in India pre-dates the Modi regime, the past few years have witnessed an unprecedented increase in the use of mass surveillance mechanisms to monitor bodies and lives, often without any legal sanction or constitutional justification. According to Compritech, a research firm based in the United Kingdom, India is the third biggest surveillance state in the world, after Russia and China. The firm observed that India’s score on the privacy index showed a systemic failure to maintain privacy safeguards.
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Several incidents across the country reported during the 2019-20 protests against the arbitrary citizenship law demonstrated India’s descent to an Orwellian state of surveillance. In December 2019, the Delhi police filmed anti-CAA/NRC protests in the city, ran the facial images of protestors through facial recognition tech, and filtered “law and order suspects” at Prime Minister Modi’s Ramlila Maidan Rally. But there is no clear information on what made certain protestors “law and order suspects”. After Delhi, protests in Chennai were under drone surveillance as well, following the Madras High Court’s order directing the Tamil Nadu police to do the same.
The Hyderabad police was reported by the media to have randomly stopped pedestrians and collected their fingerprints to check if they matched fingerprints on its databases of people accused of committing crimes. Individuals were arbitrarily deemed suspicious by the Hyderabad police, even without any evidence. These surveillance and data collection activities are reported to target low-income neighbourhoods with significant Muslim and migrant populations, demonstrating how they are fundamentally discriminatory.
51 individuals faced sedition charges after videos from the Mumbai Queer Pride 2020 gathering went viral, showing queer individuals and allies sloganeering in support of Sharjeel Imam. BJP leaders shared these videos and demanded arrests. One of them asserted that he would sit on a ‘dharna’ if the arrests weren’t made.
The CEO of FaceTagr, a facial recognition software announced that the software would enable the police to film any individual who looked suspicious and check the data against crime databases. This can have serious implications especially for persons of marginalised identities and minorities including Muslims, indigenous people, queer people and people of marginnalised castes. Under such a mechanism, through discriminatory profiling and algorithmic bias, marginalised individuals can easily become potential suspects and can be subjected to continuing harassment in the form of arbitrary investigation.
While mass surveillance in India receives state and institutional sanction, legal safeguards for having control over one’s own data are inadequate. In fact, if the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 becomes a law, it will provide the government blanket powers to access people’s data and give rise to new threats to people’s privacy. The bill contains some dangerous provisions that allow processing of personal and non-personal data for ‘delivering government services’ without taking the consent of the concerned person. WhatsApp has pointed out that the bill requires breaking encryption which threatens the privacy and security of over a billion users.
The Congress-led government introduced Aadhaar in 2009, which went on to become one of the most intrusive yet normalised forms of surveillance. With a biometric database of over 1 billion people, Aadhaar is the biggest biometric database in the world. Within a few years, Aadhaar was made compulsory by the BJP regime for citizens to avail government benefits and welfare subsidies, and file income tax returns. After a Supreme Court verdict, Aadhaar was deemed no longer mandatory for accessing existing bank accounts, creating new bank accounts, and taking a mobile phone connection. However, millions of people had already linked their Aadhaar with their banks, telecommunication providers, digital wallets, and even workplaces. The Aadhaar registration process required people to select from three gender identity options without an explanation of why collecting the gender data was required. Collecting gender-related data can be risky for many queer folks as potential outing is a legitimate concern. Sex workers, too, have expressed their concern around growing surveillance and data collection as a way for the state to control their lives, livelihoods and expression – especially as the transaction apps that they use are linked with their Aadhaar, which may visibilise their identities and lead to harassment by the police and state machinery.
State surveillance and big data collection have been normalised to the extent that the Centre no longer feels the necessity to even justify mass surveillance as essential for ‘public good’. Surveillance measures, such as, the government requiring telecom companies to provide call records of users in certain parts of India, and planning the National Social Registry, a database to track people’s lives, do not have any legal sanction and are violative of the right to privacy, which the Indian Constitution guarantees.
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Aarogya Setu, a COVID-19 contact tracing app launched by the BJP, poses major privacy threats to users by requiring them to link their name, age, sex and occupation to their geolocation information. The app continuously monitors users’ locations and who they come in contact with and when, using Bluetooth technology. This information is stored in a central server and is used to map the lives and compute the habits of users using AI, and predict their future activities. The app has been downloaded over 90 million times despite the privacy concerns and lack of accountability and answerability around who accesses the data, for how long it is stored, and how it is used. The government made the app compulsory for all private and public sector employees and directed organisations to ensure that their employees downloaded the app. Many people who hadn’t downloaded the app received notifications from their employers requiring them to download it.
During the ongoing pandemic, government authorities have used drones in Bengaluru and other cities for ‘sanitising’ the streets and monitoring people’s movements. There is no clear and accessible information on which areas are being surveilled, for how long and how often, whose data is being collected, and for how long it will be stored. This is especially concerning in the context of sectarian hatred in India where low-income neighbourhoods and slums have been arbitrarily surveilled in the past by the police and state authorities without any acknowledgment of the absence of meaningful consent to surveillance by those being surveilled. Moreover, NITI Aayog, the Indian government’s policy think tank which enabled the development of Aarogya Setu, has been using the app’s surveillance mechanism for ‘geofencing’ – i.e. segregating areas based on levels of ‘risk’ and categorising them as ‘red’, ‘orange’, and ‘green’ zones – ‘red’ zones being the most surveilled areas with maximum restrictions on people’s movement. This tech-enabled surveillance mechanism will alert the government if a person deemed ‘risky’ crosses over to another area.
What does this segregation mean in a hostile environment where Muslims have been blamed by the media and political parties at large for the spread of the virus? Why are many of the ‘red’ zones in Muslim, Dalit, and low-income neighbourhoods? Why are slums among the most neglected areas in terms of preventive and curative healthcare and governmental relief, despite being ‘red’ zones?
The normalising of mass surveillance without creating a culture of meaningful consent to it demonstrates India’s trajectory of an Orwellian surveillance state. Big data collection is legitimised by the idea of a ‘public goal’, regardless of the idea not being meaningfully agreed upon by individuals, including those who are marginalised by gender, caste, religion and class. The intrusion of the state into people’s personal lives, habits, and bodies is gradual and routinised, so that it escapes notice and critique. Moreover, the commodification of personal data under surveillance capitalism fosters a culture of perceiving one’s data as separate from one’s life and body, treating their data as a resource and not as an extension of their selves, and thus, normalising the encroachment upon one’s life through their data. And as is evident from the experiences of marginalised persons, including queer individuals, sex workers, and Muslims, the state uses digital data in the physical world to prosecute, discriminate against, coerce, and harass dissenters and those who don’t fit the government’s idea of a good Indian citizen.
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