In Search of Utopia

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surveillance

surveillance 

The author of this post spent a countless amount of time staring at the screen, contemplating a possible topic for a post, his mind wandering from Edward Snowden to Robin Williams to Krispy Kreme to Red Alert: Yuri’s Revenge. Having unsuccessfully decided on a topic, the author instead decided to pen his thoughts on why, as a nation, which rests of a precipice of political unrest bordering on a complete disintegration of the political and infrastructural fabric, has overlooked the issue of digital and cyber privacy.

Perhaps it is for the reasons stated above which is why as a nation, we feel that issues such as the classification of certain content as, “objectionable” and its subsequent blocking, are not issues worthy of much thought. The country hangs from a thread as political pundits are locked in a vicious battle of words and displays of strength, marching from one city to another, picking up supporters as a snowball rolling down a hill, as the whole country, starves for a semblance of effective leadership. However, we disagree. Presence on a social media platform, or for that matter, being active on the global internet forum automatically implies that an individual must have adequate security tools employed within their systems to ensure that their personal data is not compromised.

Every person who has access to the internet currently has two identities. Their physical identity and their cyber profile which is a series of numbers and now with the advent of social media, a real-life profile. These identities must be protected by both security tools and government legislation to prevent agencies within the Executive fold from abusing the existing infrastructure to conduct surveillance activities. It is not just surveillance that is the cause of concern, but the perspective with which individuals perceive digital security. With the increased presence of social media and online commerce, identities of individuals are at constant risk of theft. Within United States of America itself, identity theft caused $24bn in losses in 2013 alone. Kickstarter, the global fundraising website for entrepreneurial startups was hacked with usernames, mailing addresses, contact details and other sensitive information being obtained by a third party. Kickstarter maintained that credit card information was left untouched which implies that the hackers may have obtained information to users credit card information, but chose not to access it. Tesco, the British multinational retail chain, was forced to suspend more than 2000 customer accounts of its online portal after hackers posted user data online. Snapchat, the picture sharing application suffered a massive security lapse when a website by the name of SnapchatDB.info posted usernames and contact details of over 4.6m users in a bid to spread awareness regarding Snapchat’s evidently weak security infrastructure.

These few examples speak volumes on how lax perspectives towards security and the democratically protected rights towards access to content is being exploited. Coming back towards the not so democratic state of Pakistan, internet activists are neck deep in trying to spread awareness pertaining to how their fundamental human rights are being infringed upon. The fact of the matter remains that the general populace is nonplussed about these rights being denied to them. After all, in the face of the unavailability of the basic amenities of life such as electricity, security and health, questions on whether their activities on Facebook is being catalogued is the most probably the last in the hierarchy of concerns an ordinary Pakistani may have. However, agreed that yes, perhaps given the vast plethora of problems which an ordinary citizen faces, cyber privacy must be given adequate attention. The reason for that is very simple: Pakistan does not have any legislative tools in place for citizen privacy and protection of their activities online. Moreover, with the passage of the Protection of Pakistan Act where any citizen is now being perceived as guilty until proven innocent (a gross violation of the rules of natural justice) and with wide ranging powers being conferred to the law enforcement personnel, a citizen’s online activity may be presented to the Court as evidence substantiating the State’s case.

Why this is startling is simply due to the reason that ordinary citizens feel that their activity online is sacred and without a person’s login details, no person can access sensitive information. However, as was witnessed during the Arab Spring, citizens of different states were convicted simply due to their activity on the social media sphere. What is of utmost important is not the wide ranging tools that a citizen can employ, but our attitudes towards cyber security and the ease with which the Executive is exploiting a citizen’s lax behaviour towards protecting their activities online, a gaping chasm which the Executive is enjoying widening.

I am reminded heavily of the term, “being completely off the grid”. I cannot ignore the overwhelming need to perhaps disable all my social media profiles and have no cyber footprint at all. Perhaps that is the only remedy available to me to protect myself on the web. But alas! Even deactivating my profile on Facebook or my Twitter handle or my Instagram feed is not guaranteed to erase my presence. Under Facebook’s terms and conditions, once i upload data onto their servers, I relinquish my rights of that particular content; It rightfully belongs to Facebook as soon as I click, “Upload.” Once I delete my profile, that content will remain available on Facebook’s servers. Though users to Facebook will not have access to that information, but perhaps Facebook will make that content available to any third party if requested.

It is imperative to change not just the existing data usage policies but our beliefs and our perceptions towards internet security. In the face of political instability and wide disregard of essential freedoms, it is time we take back the internet, a forum which was engineered around the core concept of being a user-governed platform, not a tool for multinational corporations and states to spy. What does indeed scare me, perhaps even more than the security shortcomings of the web, is the relative ease with which the government exploits the fundamental right to privacy. If the government does indeed carry out such blatant violations of the Constitution with such ease, how soon is it that other such violations are carried out by the Government, and the populace remains silent? That day, I fear, may be right around the corner.

Research Associate at Bolo Bhi
Osman Ali Ansari has completed his Bachelors in Business Administration from the Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science & Technology (SZABIST) and is currently part of the University of London International Programme in the Faculty of Law. He has represented Pakistan in various Model United Nations Conferences including in Geneva, Kuala Lumpur, Beijing and London. He is currently a Research & Program Associate at Bolo Bhi and has an avid interest in international humanitarian law, public policy and is passionate about aviation.

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