Is the Big Brother watching? | Book Review: ‘What Privacy Means’ by Siddharth Sonkar

By Shubhangi Shah

During the strict Covid-induced lockdown, the government used drones to ensure compliance with safety standards. Then, it was a question of responding to a public health problem. However, the same was used in the anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) protests and those against the Center’s Three Farm Bills. In the absence of privacy-related safeguards on how the images obtained from these aerial vehicles are used, does this not violate our right to privacy and to protest? You’ll be confronted with this question and many more in Siddharth Sonkar’s What Privacy Means: Why It Matters and How We Can Protect It.

The Central Monitoring System (CMS) under which telecommunications service providers must implement capabilities for the government to monitor our telephone and mobile communications, the Network Traffic Analysis System (NETRA) – software that allows real-time internet traffic monitoring – and the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID) which allows state agencies to gather data from various databases such as credit and debit cards, passports, permits driving, etc. are just some of the surveillance tools employed by the government. Most of them were introduced following the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai to enhance national security. But is mass surveillance the only way out?

The Centre’s alleged use of Israeli spyware Pegasus against prominent journalists, activists and opposition leaders and the Bhima Koregaon case, in which police seized cellphones and laptops from human rights activists rights and lawyers, are some of the examples mentioned by Sonkar where there is an intersection between the freedom of dissent, the right to privacy and surveillance. “Excessive surveillance undermines the power relationship between citizens and the state, crippling democracy itself,” observes the writer.

Looking at the cases above, it appears that the issue of public and national security is always at odds with the right to privacy. However, for a functioning democracy and a secure society, both are equally crucial. So what is the way forward? The answer may lie in a law enacted by parliament, which creates “sufficient safeguards for confidentiality”, Sonkar believes. In fact, he insists on it several times in his book.

In the Orwellian dystopia of 1984, Big Brother meant the dictator, read as the state. He controlled everything – from what you could buy, read and even who you could hang out with.

Have you ever wondered how Tinder, the online dating app, works? In an aptly titled “When Cupid Breaks Our Trust” column, Sonkar quotes freelance journalist Judith Duportail who, in her book Love Under Algorithm, “discovered that Tinder uses a desirability ranking known as the Elo Score, ” a claim rejected by the application. This score “classifies users according to their intelligence, their preferences, their wealth, their ethnicity, their intelligence and their attractiveness”. In other words, it ranks profiles and finds matches accordingly.

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Moreover, most of us know how we display various advertisements based on our browsing history and online activity. Doesn’t that determine what we buy, to some extent? Yes, “we access internet platforms for free, including social media. However, we pay with our time and attention, but more importantly, our declining ability to make decisions about our purchases without undue influence,” Sonkar writes. “Internet services that we assume are free are actually paid for by advertisers,” he adds. Given these elements, doesn’t the line between tech companies and the power wielded by Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984 seem a little blurry?

At 414 pages, What Privacy Means can be a long read. It’s also not an easy book, especially for those with no legal background or knowledge of privacy. However, the author has explained every nuance in the simplest way possible, which can make it easier for you. A tip would be to read the book at a slow pace understanding the different nuances the writer delves into, otherwise you might not know anything if the same terms pop up later.

In his work, Sonkar has tried to cover all the major developments regarding the right to privacy, from Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations to Pegasus, and from India’s data privacy bill to how companies technologies analyze user data. Some parts may seem repetitive, such as how social media uses our data, the Srikrishna committee report, and the need for checks and balances in surveillance and privacy laws, which have been mentioned repeatedly and repeatedly. several places in the book. However, take the time to read it because you will come across facts, questions and problems that will put you on your guard on the one hand and make you feel stronger on the other.

What privacy means: why it matters and how we can protect it
Siddharth Sonkar
384 pages, 462 rupees

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