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Why surveillance is a double-edged sword

The act of surveillance on the lives of others might feel like a one-way looking glass but it is a two-way street in ways we never imagine

In the 2016 film ‘The Lives Of Others’, Ulrich Mühe plays a Stasi agent conducting surveillance on a playwright.
In the 2016 film ‘The Lives Of Others’, Ulrich Mühe plays a Stasi agent conducting surveillance on a playwright.

A few years after 9/11, the then US president, George W. Bush, acknowledged that the National Security Agency (NSA) had been eavesdropping on international calls as part of the US “War on Terror”. Without court permission.

While civil liberties groups seethed in righteous indignation, I felt vaguely apologetic. I lived in San Francisco at the time, and, like all other immigrants, I made a lot of international calls, back home to India. I imagined some NSA agent sitting in a drab windowless room in a government building with a cup of instant coffee listening to weekly conversations between my mother and me.

I even taped a regular phone conversation with my mother for a radio piece and tried to imagine my personal eavesdropper trying to decode it using a Bengali-to-English dictionary. My mother and I discussed her cataract operation, eye-drop frequency, her knees, the dinner menu for a cousin, what I had eaten for dinner, my nephew’s Bengali examination, my niece’s school report card, the weather. The NSA, I had heard, looked for repeating patterns. There were plenty of repeating patterns in our conversation every week but none of it added up to a secret hawala number. I imagined the poor agent’s eyes glazing over, confronted with the mundane domesticity of my life as the NSA tapped into what was really not a phone line but an umbilical cord stretching halfway across the world.

That year the Best Foreign Film Oscar went to the German film The Lives Of Others. Though set in Cold War Berlin, it felt spookily current. A member of the Stasi, the East German secret police, was in charge of bugging a playwright’s apartment. But as he listened in, he heard not just conversations about defection and “seditious” essays but also those about art and theatre. He listened to the sound of lovemaking and carefully noted it. He heard the playwright playing the piano. Slowly, the agent, code-named HGW XX/7, found his own world view changing as he became more compassionate about the lives of others.

The director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, told The New York Times his idea for the film began with an image of “a person sitting in a depressing room with earphones on his head and listening in to what he supposes is the enemy of the state and the enemy of his ideas, and what he is really hearing is beautiful music that touches him”.

I often wondered if the same ever happened to the NSA agents. Did they suddenly learn recipes for Bengali dal or Iranian fesanjan as a result of their surveillance of the lives of others? Did they discover that the lives of these persons deemed suspicious were for the most part as ordinary as their own, beset with small joys, petty grievances, unimportant secrets, that the foreign could be both reassuringly and depressingly familiar?

In hindsight, those now feel like more innocent times. The Stasi agents had to sneak into the playwright’s apartment to install those listening devices in the walls. Now we live in an age where spyware can be stealthily planted on our phones without us knowing. The citizens of Troy had to physically bring the Trojan horse inside the city walls. The modern Trojan horse can tiptoe into our lives without anyone even clicking on a message. It requires no interaction from us. And suddenly our most private worlds are opened up to strangers.

They know whom we talk to, what messages we receive, the passwords we use, the places we visit. In Stasi’s East Germany, the state relied on the friends and loved ones of those it surveilled becoming informers. Ulrich Mühe, the actor who played agent HGW XX/7 and was himself once a border guard at the Berlin Wall, alleged his second wife informed on him to the Stasi, something she denied. But the new technology does not require acts of domestic betrayal. Our own smartphones turn into informers.

There is, however, such a thing as too much information. Someone out there knows about some suspected dissident’s late night cravings for biryani via a food delivery app, about secret visits to pornographic sites, about rejections on a dating app and random bad selfies that never made it to Instagram. I shudder to think of what they encounter in the school alumni WhatsApp groups, filled as they usually are with flowery good mornings and pubescent Playboy-type jokes, forwarded fake news and memes. On my own phone, someone on the neighbourhood WhatsApp group is complaining about garbage and asking about vaccination camps while someone else is sharing congratulatory messages about India’s Olympic medals and Mr A is as usual kissing up to the local councillor’s right-hand man by wishing him (and only him) good morning every day. A clothing company I had clicked on is sending me SMSes about “Sale Week” and a hair cleanser is tempting me with promises of 60% less hair fall and 6x stronger hair. It’s enough to make the brain implode.

Perhaps the software that spies on the garbage dump our smartphones have become can also, as community service, periodically clean our phones of spam and trash.

Jokes aside, we have been lulled into thinking that privacy is something we have given up on in the age of social media, forgetting that consent is the key. As the whistle-blower Edward Snowden once pointed out, saying you should not care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is akin to saying that you should not care about the right to freedom of speech if you have nothing to say.

In India, the attorney general once told the Supreme Court the right to privacy was something more suited to developed nations, that it was not fair to talk about such a right for “such poor people”, as if privacy was some kind of elitist construct. But in its ruling, the Supreme Court had said: “Privacy, in its simplest sense, allows each human being to be left alone in a core which is inviolable”, even in an interconnected world. Just because we live in a country of nosy neighbours and inquisitive relatives does not mean that inviolable core is pointless. The right to life protects other rights such as the right to health and privacy.

That, in the end, helped bring down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which intruded on sex between consenting adults in private. Before it was read down, one of the cases filed under Section 377 was by a Bengaluru-based woman who had installed hidden cameras in the house and discovered her husband’s secret gay life.

Of course, there is a difference between a spouse snooping on their partner’s phone and the state doing the same. But while the debates around privacy focus understandably on the rights of those being spied upon, wiretapped, surveilled, and the constitutionality of it all, one still wonders how it impacts those who do the snooping. A secret window into someone’s private life makes us feel powerful but it’s a double-edged sword.

In the web series Made In Heaven, the married and closeted Mr Gupta installs hidden cameras to spy on his gay tenant for vicarious pleasure. When his wife discovers the footage, he has to pretend he is the righteous citizen gathering evidence. The tenant gets hauled to lock-up while the landlord watches helplessly, the Peeping Tom forced to confront his own image in the mirror.

The act of surveillance on the lives of others might feel like a one-way looking glass but it is a two-way street in ways we never imagine.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.


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