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বাংলা
Dhaka Tribune

I spy with my little eye

Update : 05 Nov 2014, 06:39 PM

Growing up, a large part of my childhood was spent playing different types of games – outdoor games, indoor games, word games, picture games (none involving iPads). One game that I immensely enjoyed was “I spy with my little eye something beginning with ...”

Fast forward two decades and the games no longer seem harmless or fun. The eyes are no longer little and the rules of the game no longer trivial, as evident from the recent Wikileaks revelation about a Tk8.2cr (€831,060) purchase of surveillance software from a German company by the Bangladesh government. This software allows the country’s intelligence units to remotely intercept audio, video, and written communications from privately-owned computers.

The news of the purchase of the FinFisher aka FinSpy software has surfaced only about a year after the Snowden incident when Edward Snowden created shocks around the world when he leaked classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA) about numerous global surveillance programs. The issue of surveillance in our home context sheds light on deeper concerns relating to morality, legitimacy, security, freedom, and so on.

Spyware obstructs the privacy of people’s lives and challenges the individual freedoms of people all over the world. Every human being has a basic and fundamental right to protect himself and his privacy from others, be it other individuals or the omnipotent state machinery. If we look both at absolute and comparative scales, we would find that this freedom has been mostly respected all along the history of human civilisation.

Even during the nascent stage of computer and information technology systems, human society guaranteed personal freedom and privacy – elements considered to be the basic ingredients of a democratic society. Centuries ago, during the primitive age of communication when we relied upon postal mails, or “snail mails,” states pedagogically recognised the privacy of individuals. For example, the encroachment of post office personal letters was considered illegal and such privacy was protected by appropriate legislation.

If we look at the laws of our state, in Article 43(b) of the Bangladesh constitution, it is stated that “every citizen shall have the right to the privacy of his correspondence and other means of communication, subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interests of the security of the State, public order, public morality, or public health.”

However, the term “reasonable” remains vague and its interpretation at the discretion of the government and/or the judiciary. The real issue here cannot just be the concern for sheer “gross security” as many powerful states insist. We must also reflect upon other core values including the right to freedom of speech or the right to political freedom.

The issue here is not only about contents, topics, or frequency of communications but also of ethics, honesty, and morality which makes the lives of general people vulnerable. It is also important to think about the immense power possessed by private corporations that sell such software, security/IT equipment, worth trillions of dollars, and how the business interests of a few are capable of manipulating the decisions made by super powers.

The reverse is also true, where the advanced states also take advantage of the corporations who are operating in a monopolistic or oligarchic style of markets. Thus, the outcome is a gross violation of human dignity.

This is even more problematic because jargons like “metadata,” “boundless informant,” “PRISM” and so on are used which have the effect of discouraging the average citizens from finding out more information about how these intelligence programs are working and exploiting the public.

However, on the positive side, awareness around these issues is increasing and there have been numerous efforts by both journalists and whistleblowers to put more information out in the public.

Past experiences such as the outburst by the German chancellor and the French president, in response to US surveillance, have shown that such rampant acts carried out by the intelligence agencies will not go unquestioned, although the foreign minister of India, a weaker superpower had reconciled with these violations for reasons that may seem obvious.

Nonetheless, the situation is dismal and the extent to which individuals can stand up to the powers of the state remains low. The primary action that can be taken at this point is to increase basic knowledge about these issues and to engage the public and/or the mobile phone/internet users.

Any infringement on such human values by the state on whatever pretext, for example, the so called “security considerations,” eventually turns these states into “police states,” lacking not only democratic values but also devoid of the minimal respect that any human being on this earth deserves.

What is more dangerous is that such security taboo provides a ploy for authoritarian governments to crack down on the opposition or dissenters by hounding on their emails, social media, mobile phones, data traffic, and all other modes of communications threatening them, making their lives miserable and taking them into custody to perpetuate their illegitimate hold on the government to lengthen their regime through non-democratic means.

Besides, time has come to ask serious questions as to whether the security concerns should relate to those of the state rather than to the security of the people on the globe at large who are seeking their minimal guarantee of a safe livelihood under tough economic conditions. Should citizens’ security and safety as a whole be valued higher than personal security and safety?

Time has also come to redefine the issue of security of state vis-a-vis the security of people before further abuse of modern technology by a tiny handful of powerful and greedy individuals nullify our eternal struggle for setting up a just and egalitarian society for all people on Earth irrespective of their gender, nationality, cast, creed, religion, richness, or poverty. That is the real essence of protecting fundamental human rights.

Bangladeshis highly value the concepts of human rights and freedoms and given current events, this is the most opportune time to steer such ideas in the pursuit of peace and progress of humankind to further advance the human civilisation. 

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