Saturday, February 6, 2010

In the name of Terrorists

“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety”
- Ben Franklin

There are some striking parallels between law and Information Technology. First, both are esoteric in nature and form and as a result most people don't understand anything about it. Even those who use it are mostly frightened away by the intricacies of both. Second is the profound impact they have upon life of people. Like it or not, these two things affect our life in modern times thoroughly, probably more than most other elements. So people who master these, use it to spy, control and manipulate the society. Our cyber law, India Information Technology act and the amendment, is an essential manifestation of this.

The law is perceivably (and intentionally) vague, unrealistic and ambiguous with plenty of options given to misuse it. But under the hood its a carefully engineered draft with vast power to spy on people, wrapped up in some moral and anti-terrorist foils. A few glimpses from the boring and scary details of the law,

Bringing in censorship to the internet.

With the complete power and authority to block any web site at any point of time in the interest of "national security", the law heralds a new era of internet censorship. Recent statement of supreme court chief justice on the need for introducing censorship in internet adds further strength to the notion of strong e-censorhip. So it could start with blocking sites in the interests of 'national security' and 'pornographic contents' and slowly extend to any thing undesirable to the authorities like political opponents or human right organizations.

Browsing or downloading any pornographic materials (even if it is unintentional or accidental) can send you behind bars or end up paying huge fines.

It is important to note that the law does not exclude people who have viewed this accidental. It was reported recently that 95% of all mails in the world are spams. And we all know from our experience that a good chunk of this mails comes embedded with pornographic contents. So if you ever happen to have clicked on any such spam mail(funny that many such mails have fake sender and subject names making you click it) , you are vulnerable. Strangely, it treats publishers and downloaders of such materials on equal foot. And what is even more scary is anybody of a Sub Inspector's rank can come to you and arrest you for this without any warrant. It needs not be associated with any cognizable offence at all !! I don't know anything about laws but have always wondered why there is absolutely no problem with watching pornography as part of 'artwork' in films or sculptures and same is a problem when viewed in internet ?

Cyber terrorism and 'contaminant'

Introducing any 'contaminant' in a computer or network is covered in the cyber terrorism section. The term 'Contaminant' has lengthy description with plenty of boilerplates given to include any malware or similar things. But enough to say that it includes common items like virus and worms , which are there in most of the computers connected to any kind of network and propagated further without any user intervention. Now the law says that if introduction of any such 'contaminant' can cause any injury, death or even damage to property then the punishment can extent even upto life sentence. Your best bet is to hope that none of the viruses or worms sneaking in your hard disks do not get propagated and cause any damage to anyone !

Think before you forward the Emails and SMSes

The bill also provides punishment of up to three years for sending any material offensive to anyone or causing any inconvenience by any means like mail or SMS.
Again, if some malware infects your computer and sends some messages or materials to someone automatically, you may end up in prison. Throughout in the bill, there is no mechanism explained to distinguish between intentional and unintentional/accidental acts. The law assumes that like conventional modes and channels of communication , every single action of a computer is controlled by the users completely. Which is just not true.

Safeguards ? Sounds great, may be later !

There is absolutely no safeguards to implement independent oversight or monitoring. The bill says safeguards would be stipulated at a later date. So they admit the genuine requirement of an oversight authority but does not provide it !

Actually this has got nothing to do with terrorism . Its all about surveillance and spying on people to controll them. Pioneered by British Raj and maintained by successive Indian governments. The precursor of the present cyber law is Indian Telegraphic act of 1885. Drafted by British to spy on the people and control them to protect the colonial interests. Like all other evil legacies of colonial past, our governments continue to use this law to spy on people and tap the phone calls or other communications of the people including political opponents, activists, NGOs and anyone else which made sense for the rulers. All these with the blank cheque of 'national interests'. It is funny that various parties and governments were busy in reverting the colonial past by renaming the beautiful names of places like Bombay and Calcutta while continue to practice a law like this which was drafted at a time when Indians were not given any constitutional right of freedom of speech or personal liberty. All the governments and parties from right to left were unanimous in this. The spying regime hit a road block in 1996 when Supreme Court intervened in the scenario and delivered its judgement in a landmark case brought by People union of civil liberties. The verdict said that "unless a public emergency has occurred or the interest of public safety demands, the authorities have no jurisdiction to exercise this power" Also the Supreme Court clearly defined and restricted the terms 'emergency' and 'public safety' strictly thus effectively ending the unfettered and unbridled spying regime. Bereft of the spying power, the authorities started to look for alternatives and cyber law was formed. And terrorists attacks in Bombay made it further easier to add these amendments. Actually its going the same way as Telegraphic act. The Government has not been able to provide any safeguard for the Telegraphic act since independence. So Don't expect anything different with this too. Effectively we are slowly going to our colonial past albeit with a difference. Difference being that itts our own authorities who are practising this. And this is not going to end with cyber law. Recently Intelligence Bureau(IB) asked Indian Government to ban Voice Over IP(VOIP) based telephone calls. They sited the problem in identifying the origin and location of each calls and chances of terrorists using the technology. So in the name of terrorism, they are going to ban a technology which gives call facility to everyone at a cost of fraction of conventional telephones.

What is next ? complete censorship like what is practised in China or Saudi Arabia? I am writing this from Saudi which is probably one of the least democratic and most stringent regime in the world. But even here , there is nothing comparable to this bill. A good chunk of the useful part of internet is blocked here. Many of the social web sites, torrent downloads and even google translation is blocked( Why they block even google translation is beyond my logic and sense!) Often, internet browsing is painful experience with many of the useful information unavailable. But it shows how unrealistic, inefficient and horrible the entire system can be. (Funny that porn browsers find it trivial to fetch the materials they want through rather easier channels)
What is shocking is there was no discussion about this in the parliament or even in the public. A law with such a huge impact on our life is still largely unknown to most and ignored by the media. There has virtually been no discussion about it in the media. Its a classic Orwellian case, with 'Big brother' getting 'strengthened' by the ignorance of public. If the terrorists had any intention of destroying the life of Indians, they are slowly inching towards achieving it with the help of corrupted and power hungry rulers.