Ministry of Fear
Now they're after the Blackberry. Since "terrorists might use" Blackberry's email and messaging services, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) wants the master keys to their encryption. Blackberry says there are no master keys as each user's code is individually unique by design. So the MHA is threatening to ban them in India. Who will blink first?
The Home Ministry has always been doggedly resistant to technological advances. For decades, their Luddite mindsets led to the banning of walkie-talkies on film locations ---"terrorist might use them" --- and the denial of radio taxi services in India, long after it was common across the world. Remember when they'd confiscate our music batteries at airports? Then they went after the Indian telecoms, who are being forced, at an astronomical cost, to make every mobile tappable, and to personally verify owners of the 500 million mobiles in India. It's a free lunch for the ministry who won't be paying a penny.
To what end? None of these policies have prevented terrorists from communicating effectively. But they have greatly upset the telecoms, millions of bonafide customers, tourists, even many "border areas". Kashmir was kept off the mobile map for many years. Even today whole swathes can't use mobiles because, "terrorists may use them". Damn the needs of all the rest.
The threat to India's Blackberry services is frightening and real. Thuraya satellite phones have already been banned because the company refused to compromise the privacy of its worldwide users. A hapless globetrotting Brit is now languishing in prison for carrying it through the country without having used it once. Forget Thuraya's unequalled reach in the Himalayan ranges, rural India, the Thar Desert, or the oil rigs at sea. Since "terrorists might use them" nothing else seems to count.
We are the greatest beneficiaries of a worldwide revolution in communications. The thrust of today's technology is to enable people to reach each other in every way imaginable. Telephones, mobiles, smsing, email, Internet telephony, voicemail, multimedia messages, DVDs, online forums, file sharing and the plethora of social networking sites (Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin et al), are creating endless ways for people to communicate with each other. Can the Home Ministry monitor and control them all?
It may be news to the Ministry but smart terrorists don't use traceable communications like email. They simply file their messages in their 'drafts' folder, easily accessed by recipients who share their password. Or they communicate on porn sites. Or on obscure forums in other languages. Or in heavily coded messages. They're always one step ahead, their survival depends on it.
So going after Blackberry's privacy is not just pointless, it's bad policy. Individuals, corporates or countries, all have justified needs for secrecy. Who wants the intelligence agencies peeping into their sexual secrets, business secrets, state secrets? Should the Home ministry be given right to know everything about everybody? Threats from terrorists, however awful their crimes, should not give the state the right to override everyone's legitimate needs for privacy. It's a misuse of power.
The MHA's fear factor is also souring tourism and business in India. One David Headley, a white man who turned out to be a terrorist, and all tourist visas to India are tarred on arrival. Passports are stamped "Not eligible to return to India for two months." While bad guys always find their way in, with or without visas (remember 26/11?), frequent travellers are lamenting the fading allure of "Incredible India". At the Foreigner's Registration Office (FRRO) in Mumbai, those wanting a routine renewal of their Business Visas are told to fly to Delhi for Ministry clearance. Easy, huh? It's a frog-in-the-well attitude that suspects every foreigner when we've exported 25million of our own.
The antiquated mentality of the Home ministry hasn't understood the uncontrollable openness of the digital age. Gone are the good old days when surveillance meant steaming open a letter, tapping a phone or intercepting a telegram. It's a whole new world out there. Security experts say what the MHA is demanding of Blackberry is technically impossible. Undeterred, like some authoritarian states, they're still insisting, and now plan to invade Google too. Next stop YouTube? Hey, "terrorist might use them". Isn't it more important for the Government to respect the legitimate communication needs of millions who aren't terrorists?
But let's be fair. Chidambaram, once a great Finance Minister, is performing admirably in a difficult "job", as he calls it, as Home Minister. But it's also his job to change the ministry's outdated mindset, and drag them kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Going after Blackberry's 41 million worldwide customers --- 1 million in India alone --- will seriously disrupt the working lives of enormous numbers of people involved in India's growth story. And it won't stop terrorists from communicating. We live in dangerous times and we're rooting for the good guys. But the Home Ministry shouldn't expect the rest of the world to do their job for them. The tail can't wag the dog.
Kabir Bedi is an international actor, producer and occasional columnist.
ORIGINALLY PRINTED IN "TEHELKA" MAGAZINE/ AUGUST 15-21, 2010 ISSUE.
UPDATED AUG 15th. Independence Day