Privacy and State

This post shares an incident which has bearings on individual privacy and the Indian State big brother attitude and helplessness.

Let’s start at the very beginning circa pre-1992. I remember as a young teenager going in holidays to Bombay (as it then called) with family and friends. My cousins and friends used to sneak out to enjoy the night-life of mumbai and hang out at the local nightclubs and bars to see and be part of the action therein. Of course, I was the youngest person in the group. The biggest crime for us that we committed were dancing, looking at girls/women, attempting to flirt with women twice our age and underage drinking. I was the only underage boy/guy/teen. It was really an innocent time as there was no worry about anything. Even if we used to take locals or Taxis late at night we didn’t have to worry about anything. Of course, the underage drinking may be legal issue, the flirting may be more of a moral grey area but can live with it. Then the 1992 blasts happened and like millions of others the feeling of creepiness, looking over the shoulder came and the enthusiasm to visit Bombay dimmed for sometime. Cut to January 2010 and the German Bakery Blast (One of my fav. haunts from 3-5 years back to let my hair down and socialize) happened. While if it had been a week before I could have very well been one of the more injured or a causality. So while I do feel happy, I also saddened for the loss. I don’t know still confused about what to feel. Anyways, last week, some of the main accused for the German Bakery blast were found in an unknown city called Udgir, somewhere near Latur (known for the earthquake which happened there few years ago) Maharashtra. The accused perpetrators used a cybercafe as a cover called ‘Global Net cafe’ and perhaps for communications as well. Of course, all of which should come out in due investigation. I also have to say ‘alleged’ as all that has to be proved in the court of law.

With this development, the Pune Crime Branch Cyber Cell started booking unlicensed cyber cafe owners and Operators. While that is a step perhaps in the right direction, one of new alleged instructions is to take scans of all individuals identity proof who come/frequent cybercafes. On one hand I have questions for the Cybercafe owners as to why they haven’t got themselves licensed, as a freelancer and entrepreneur can very well understand some of the issues/hassles involved therein. But this post is not about that.

Even from a technical perspective, I can also understand the cyber cafe owners insistence on using ‘Deep Freeze’. For those who don’t know the software it simply deletes the profile and clears all temporary files so the next session the computer runs smoothly. Also many people know that Windows XP memory management during a session leaves a lot to be desired. If an applications takes memory from the OS after the application is done and over with, the memory is not given back to the OS with the result that during a session the computer becomes more and more slow with the net result being that one has to go next session to get the best performance. Also Deep Freeze is used so no viruses can enter the system or if they do, the next session is from scratch so it would not happen. Some of these issues and many more compelled me to switch to GNU/Linux. The other problem is most of the cybercafes are also a one-man, two man operation and they lack the technical skills and motivations to maintain the machines as they would in a corporate environment. The basic business model is to have low-cost machines, good bandwidth, electricity, light for the princely price of Rs. 20/- per hour. Most of their target audience are either students or people coming to print and file PMC tenders and things like that. Most of the students are those who are studying in the nearby Engineering and Commerce colleges.

It is rumored that in Windows 7 they have completely revamped the memory management function but upgrading to that at this point of time would entail lot of extra expenditure which would make cybercafe charges prohibitive and they would not have the 80% people, customers they have as of today thereby killing an important commercial and social service.

From the law and order perspective, I am as non-plussed and stumped as perhaps they are how to keep the service running while keeping an eye on potential terrorists and other anti-social elements in check. If they don’t take any action, the general populace (including me) would react that the police doesn’t do anything to protect us from such things. Another counter-argument could be made as the civil rights issue played in China and Russia . While the law/big brother is on the move the intentions and clarifications are in order. After all, we are supposed to be living in a democracy the last time I checked.

Lastly, I am a small fly in the grander scheme of things. I have put up a short e-mail addressed to the Pune City Police as shown below. The only thing which I have omitted from the mail are my personal contact details.

Resp. Sir/Madame,
I have been using the services of ‘Prism net cafe’ for the past six months or so. Since my desktop broke down. On 16th September, 2010 Pune Newsline carried a news item detailing how many unlicensed cybercafes are running in the city. http://www.indianexpress.com/news/police-chief-talks-tough-heat-on-unlicensed-cyber-cafes/682257/ . Yesterday evening i.e. the 17th of September, 2010 i went to the above-mentioned cybercafe. They asked to have a scan of the identity proof. While I gave the relevant details and they were duly scanned. While I do understand and appreciate the work being done by the Pune Cyber Cell targeting terrorist/anti-social elements at large I am also concerned with the possibility of misuse of such information by unscrupulous individuals working in and around Cybercafes. I am sure you are aware of how common individuals/people’s names and cell numbers are harvested routinely and sold for spamming/cold calling etc. While most of these are a nuisance rather than anything else, getting access to scanned identity information could have more issues. Possibility of cases of identity theft (couple or more which have already happened in India) may see a rise. how does Pune Police hope to secure the common public from such issues? While I have played out the State’s predicament as well in my blog post http://wp.me/po8ay-1Y alongwith a copy of this letter I would appreciate a reply on the same. I have few poignant questions on the matter mentioned above as well :-

1. What if any new conditions are being made by Pune police for identity proof ? I looked for answers on the Pune Police website http://www.punepolice.gov.in/message_com.html and was none the wiser.

2. If a scanned picture of an individual along with relevant details are taken how is the police going to stop/save us from any possible misuse of our identity/information ?

3. If instructions have been issued/given to scan pictures for id proof, aren’t they supposed to display those instructions on the display board.

The above mentioned cybercafe is located off J.M.Road near Mamta Sweets. If people want to forward the mail to other socially relevant groups, please do so minus my contact no.

A concerned citizen

Like others I could have also turned a blind eye, in fact was very much tempted, but it is saddening and worrisome at the same time. Of course, in my specific case, I have the resources to buy a lappy and/or a desktop and relieve myself of such stress (That’s the idea, waiting to some specific hardware to hit the market before I commit myself to a new machine) but scores of individuals who may be not as lucky as I am. With all government and social resources moving online and being the best way to get things done, accessing Net and not using services of a cybercafe are not an option. One more thing to keep in mind is the next 3 months where a multitude of festivals are happening. It is supposed to be a time of joy but now also carefulness 😦

So just my 2 paise.

Update 28/09/10 :- I made a part 2 of the same post.

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