CWA Commentary

Photo Source:
   NIAS Course on Global Politics
National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS)
Indian Institute of Science Campus, Bangalore
For any further information or to subscribe to GP alerts send an email to subachandran@nias.res.in
Print Bookmark

CWA # 127, 8 June 2019

Mass Surveillance and Individual Freedom
San Francisco wants to ban, Kashgar wants to expand

  Mahath Mangal

While the question of privacy versus security is a simple question, the answer isn’t. While San Francisco is leading with example against surveillance, the human rights violations in Kashgar continue, where the citizens are living in what can be called a virtual prison, regularly monitored and directed. It’s an automated utopia.

What happened in San Francisco?
Recently, San Francisco made a municipal ordinance which banned the use of facial recognition technology by the city and county agencies. It has garnered international attention as it is a first in the US to legislate against the usage of technology which has played a prominent role in ‘safeguarding’ national security since 9/11.

The ordinance, while preventing the government agencies from using the technology, allows for the private use of the same. Citizens are free to provide the police with evidence if needed, thereby giving the citizens more control with what Washington would be able to witness and sets procedures for sharing of such footage. It also exempts the use in San Francisco International Airport where Transportation Security Administration and Customs and Border Patrol have jurisdiction.

While the citizens of San Francisco are pushing for lesser surveillance, in many parts of the world, states are adopting more of face recognition and mass surveillance, amassing personal data and information. 


What is happening in Kashgar
The best example of a surveillance state would be China.

An ancient town in North Western China, the city of Kashgar today can be called a modern prison. There are checkpoints guarded by police every 100 metres or so. The residents, primarily Uighar Muslims, are required to swipe their IDs, stand properly while a machine clicks their photograph, analyses it and files it into the data of the individual. Children are interrogated to find out if they are being taught religious texts at home, which has led to the disappearance of many families.

Mosques are attended by fewer men, where they have to offer prayers under a camera. Citizens and tourists alike are stopped, and phones searched for sensitive content. The citizens also require to install applications which allow the state to monitor their calls and communications.

This is one of the most extreme manifestations of mass surveillance. Is this for national security, the most cited justification for watching every move, recording every word, reading every mail of the subjects of the state?

Xinjiang is the wild-wild-west of China. A vast region rich in resources and sparsely populated was too attractive for China to lose control of. A violation of the laws in Kashgar can result in fines, arrest, or detention in internment camps known as “Re-education camps” in the words of the state, spread over an area of around one million square metres in southern Kashgar.
Automated authoritarianism is what the residents of Kashgar are subject to. The freedom of movement, of expression, of a dignified life, are practically non-existent.  

Who wants surveillance? And Why?
In a state, the highest demand for the adoption of surveillance systems would be from the security agencies. Following the Twin Tower attacks, the US was quick to adopt several surveillance programmes like PRISM, a pet project of the NSA which spied on communications of citizens and companies. The use of technologies like biometric recognition is very appealing for the police and services. They can help identify shoplifters, criminals and the like.

There is a surveillance-industry complex also at play. They are the providers of the technology. They manufacture the hardware, develop the algorithm, store information in substantial data farms. They are also pushing for the enactment of surveillance laws and investments. These while beneficial for the companies puts the individual’s freedoms and privacy at risk.
What does it mean?

As the saying goes, information is power. With the dilemma between national security and the individual’s freedoms, there is no simple answer. While there is a rising trend of more countries, like Britain, Russia, France adopting surveillance laws, the trend is also spreading to developing countries like India, where there was no satisfactory laws or framework for national biometric projects like Aadhar to be implemented. They were.

The data collected by the government, private companies and other agencies are just another commodity in the market today. Insights into the spending pattern and lifestyle of individuals are used by analytic firms to develop patterns and predict the behaviour of the people. Cambridge Analytica shot to fame when they were found to have provided political parties with the voting behaviour of the population, which in turn would help them shape their campaign strategies and by extension, ensure favourable results in the elections.

Today, data is thereby a commodity of high value. It is sold and exchanged between corporations and governments and their agencies without the consent or knowledge of the individual. 
The surveillance programs have not been successful in helping the forces prevent an attack. Pre-emptive action is hard to take, as in the case of the Boston Marathon bomber, who was on the watchlist of both the FBI and the CIA. The attack took place and lives were lost. 

While the question of privacy versus security is a simple question, the answer isn’t. A nation needs to protect its people, but at what cost? Since security should ensure the citizens their fundamental rights, ironically, the states are taking away their information security and personal freedom to lead a private life. 

While San Francisco is leading with example against surveillance, the human rights violations in Kashgar continue, where the citizens are living in what can be called a virtual prison, regularly monitored and directed. It’s an automated utopia, where crimes aren’t tolerated, and criminals hunted down. 

If only right and wrong were absolute concepts.

The international community needs to form a concrete policy and framework for the use of such technologies. The citizens should be made aware of it and its reaching consequences. The countries need to find the right balance between maintaining national security and individual freedom. The safety of the state is paramount, but so is the privacy of its subjects.

Print Bookmark

Other CWA Publications

Conflict Weekly
May 2022 | CWA # 739

IPRI Team

Another racial attack in the US, Divide within the EU over the Russian oil ban, and violence in Israel

read more
NIAS Africa Weekly
May 2022 | CWA # 738

NIAS Africa Team

IN FOCUS | Communal Tensions in Ethiopia

read more
France Presidential Elections 2022
May 2022 | CWA # 737

Padmashree Anandhan

What does Macron's victory mean for France and the EU

read more
France Presidential Elections 2022
May 2022 | CWA # 736

Rishma Banerjee

The rise of Marine Le Pen

read more
France Presidential Elections 2022
May 2022 | CWA # 735

Ashwin Immanuel Dhanabalan

Five reasons why Emmanuel Macron won

read more
France Presidential Elections 2022
May 2022 | CWA # 734

Sourina Bej

Four challenges ahead for President Macron

read more
Conflict Weekly Cover Story
May 2022 | CWA # 733

S Shaji

Sudan, three years after Omar al Bashir

read more
Conflict Weekly
May 2022 | CWA # 732

IPRI Team

Intensifying political crisis in Sri Lanka, Communal tensions in Ethiopia, and 75 days of Ukraine war

read more
NIAS Africa Weekly
May 2022 | CWA # 731

NIAS Africa Team

IN FOCUS | Mali ends defence ties with France

read more
The World This Week
May 2022 | CWA # 730

GP Team

India-Nordic Summit, and New EU sanctions on Russia

read more
Conflict Weekly
May 2022 | CWA # 729

IPRI Team

Mali-France tensions and anti-UK protests in the Virgin Islands

read more
The World This Week
May 2022 | CWA # 728

GP Team

New US assistance for Ukraine

read more
Conflict Weekly
April 2022 | CWA # 727

IPRI Team

​​​​​​​UK-Rwanda asylum deal, Mexico's continuing femicides, and Afghanistan's sectarian violence

read more
NIAS Africa Weekly
April 2022 | CWA # 726

NIAS Africa Team

IN FOCUS | UK-Rwanda asylum deal

read more
The World This Week
April 2022 | CWA # 725

GP Team

China's Boao Forum for Asia, Russia's new ICBM test, and a Cold War in the Solomon Islands

read more
Conflict Weekly
April 2022 | CWA # 724

IPRI Team

The battle for Donbas, Violence in Jerusalem, Riots in Sweden, Kyrgyzstan- Tajikistan border dialogue, and China’s military drills

read more

Click below links for year wise archive
2021 | 2020 | 2019 | 2018