George Orwell’s prediction that Big Brother is snooping has come true, but not in the dystopian manner he predicted.
Though China, which aims to install one public CCTV camera per two citizens by 2022, is the world’s most surveilled state, citizens in most democracies are being watched by their governments.
After Cambridge Analytica, the new snoop in the coop is Israeli firm NSO Group accused of infiltrating WhatsApp accounts of Indians known for anti-government sentiments, using proprietary Pegasus software on behalf of the Centre; NSO sells Pegasus only to governments.
In a larger context, the warning brings home the fear that even emotions and opinions can be invaded by Bade Bhai.
Data is the cerebral cortex of governments. Its first victim is privacy. Luddites have been screaming about the dark side of technology entering the deepest chambers of our hearts.
Democracy thrives on friction between opposites, depending on the ideological and political preferences of people.
However, it does not allow governments to be quidnuncs looking for who voted for whom. Should the sarkar be privy to personal opinions about it? Should it read about conversations of lovers, marital discords, assignations, blowoffs, shopping lists, travel plans and such banal factors that make up daily life?
The executive has no right to monitor private life. But national security is the foggy territory between constitutional rights and terrorism.
Islamists use WhatsApp and similar apps to plan attacks on civilised societies. In response, governments are prioritising surveillance to save citizens.
Many countries have installed facial recognition cameras and vehicle licence plate-reading devices across cities.
Huawei of China—the world’s biggest snoop state—provides AI surveillance technology to at least 50 nations. London is the most pried-upon city in the world with around 51,000 police cameras that capture one Londoner about 300 times every day.
Baltimore secretly used drones to check on its residents. Delhi has 9.62 cameras per 1,000 people though how many are in working condition isn’t clear.
The irony of government voyeurism? No money is spent on surveillance of corruption, health violations, poor school attendance, crime, hygiene, encroachment and such challenges of development.
The democratic view that the greater good triumphs over individual rights has prevailed through centuries. Socrates and Plato saw democracy eating its own tail; inherently corrupt because the people were inherently depraved, which ultimately led to tyranny.
The irony is that representation puts in power leaders trusted by the people, who in turn do not trust the people to lead exemplary personal lives.
The surveillance state scatters the line between personal and private. Voting is in camera, but democracy is very much on camera.