Tag Archives | information

The immorality of leaking private information indiscriminately

The Hindu shouldn’t be collaborating in this unethical enterprise

When Wikileaks indiscriminately leaked diplomatic correspondence it had the fig leaf of claiming it was exposing wrongdoing by governments. Never mind that it put the lives and safety of informants in authoritarian countries at risk while only revealing details of how international diplomacy is conducted. Those details might have surprised ordinary people who were unfamiliar with the workings of their foreign ministries and embassies, they didn’t achieve any lofty public purpose. As I argued then, they might have conversely caused governments to tighten up their information silos to the detriment of the public interest.

Now, when Wikileaks has indiscriminately leaked the email archives of a private firm, Stratfor, there is no fig leaf of any kind left. Stratfor is a private intelligence company that collects and sells geopolitical analysis to private and government buyers. The nature of its business requires it to seek out informants, negotiate with them and pay them. It might procure leads from US government agencies and sell them information. All this is in the nature of its business.

Some people might be appalled that other people do this kind of business, but it is a legitimate business. Stratfor didn’t claim to be the Red Cross or a humanitarian organisation. It claims to be “a subscription-based provider of geopolitical analysis…(using) a unique, intelligence-based approach to gathering information via rigorous open-source monitoring and a global network of human sources.” It is what it says it is. It operates legally.

If Julian Assange or anyone else knows of specific instances of wrongdoing or illegal activity by Stratfor or its employees, the right thing to do is register a complaint with the relevant law-enforcement authorities. If Mr Assange has evidence of illegality, the only ethical thing for him to do is to hand it over to the authorities. Wholesale, indiscriminate leaking of private information—because you dislike Stratfor’s business or suspect illegality—is neither ethical nor moral. It is quite likely illegal.

From what we know of Julian Assange, he lacks the moral compass to make these fairly obvious ethical judgements. The Hindu, though, does (or, perhaps, used to). I often disagree with the newspaper’s editorial line. However, until the Indian newspaper’s dalliance with Wikileaks, I did not have reason to complain about its basic ethics. No longer. It is unclear just how a reputed institution like The Hindu could be a willing collaborator with Mr Assange on the violation of the privacy of a private company.

If the editors of The Hindu believe that invading Stratfor’s privacy is somehow acceptable then they ought to start by opening up their own corporate email systems to the public. Make every email and phone call public. Surely the public has a right to know the names of the informants who talk to the newspaper’s journalists? Surely the public must know what the journalists tell each other and to their editors? So what if the informants are honest whistleblowers risking their lives or crafty officials manipulating public opinion? Let’s have it. Let the people decide!

If The Hindu’s editors think that their own emails are private information, why then are they denying that right to Stratfor?


Update: In an editorial note published on February 28th, the newspaper justifies its collaboration with Wikileaks on two premises. First, that “confidentiality and privacy cannot be invoked as a cover for wrongdoing or unethical behavior”; and second, “the unusual nature of Stratfor’s business — in essence, providing intelligence to clients who include governments and large corporations, some embroiled in serious controversies, like Dow Chemical — means that there is a compelling public interest in studying the e-mails to see if they cast light on corporate or governmental wrong-doing.”

This is sophistry. The ethical question here is how can we know a priori that there is wrongdoing? Is it ethical for individuals and newspapers to steal private property (or deal with thieves) merely on suspicion? Even the police can’t search without warrant. So if I suspect The Hindu of being on the payroll of the Chinese Communist Party, it it acceptable for me to hack into their email systems, or ransack their offices, to look for evidence of “wrongdoing or unethical behavior”? Clearly not.

And surely the “unusual nature of StratFor’s business” is not that unusual. For instance, “the unusual nature of The Hindu’s business – in essence providing information to clients who include governments, large corporations, rapists, convicts and enemies of India, some embroiled in serious controversies like the 2G scam and the genocide of Tamils in Sri Lanka — means that there is a compelling public interest in studying the emails to see if they cast light on corporate or governmental wrong-doing.”

So let The Hindu open up its email archives to me. I will be ‘acutely aware that my use of this material imposes special obligations upon me, in particular to respect the privacy of the legitimate business activities and private correspondence of The Hindu, its staff and those they may have corresponded with. In my reportage, I shall do my utmost to respect this obligation, by only publishing material if it clearly points to corporate or government wrong-doing or unethical behaviour, and thus meets the test of compelling public interest.’

If this proposal strikes you as preposterous, it is because it is. Strangely, and unfortunately, The Hindu’s editors are doing just this to someone else.

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On NDTV: All icing, no cake

The Prime Minister’s Office is on Twitter. Good. But what about the rest?

On NDTV’s Trending This Week show Shashi Tharoor, L Rajagopalan and I spoke to Sunetra Choudhry about the Prime Minister’ Office entering the fray on Twitter (as @PMOIndia). The points I made (or tried to):

1. This is the Prime Minister’s Office that is tweeting and not Manmohan Singh the person.

2. We should welcome it for two reasons: First, the PMO is not ceding or absenting itself from an important space in public discourse. Second, that it sets a precedent for the rest of government—across all levels, across the country—that Twitter is a legitimate place for it to put out information. “Don’t wait for an RTI application before you release information, you can do it proactively on a timely basis.”

3. However, Twitter is only a part of an overall information strategy and complements media appearances, press conferences, public speeches, online content and blog posts. Since Prime Minister Singh has been conspicuous by is absence on this front, merely being on Twitter is the icing without the cake.

4. You can’t govern a country of a billion people by remaining silent.

5. The median age of an Indian is less than 29 years, which means half the population is below this age. It is important for the government to engage them. If the tweets are boring, rehashes of press releases (or worse, approved by a committee,) the PMO might look like a middle-aged uncle turning up at a teenagers’ party pretending to be cool.

Related Links:
My on the “rise of netions” at MEA’s Public Diplomacy Conference 2010; my Shala talk on radically networked societies; and Business Standard column.

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Jayant Choudhry on debating IT rules in parliament

Jayant Choudhry, the Rashtriya Lok Dal MP from Mathura was the only legislator who expressed in the Lok Sabha concerns raised by citizens against the draconian Information Technology Rules (IT Rules) that came into effect this year. (More about what’s wrong with these rules in my DNA op-ed, Sunil Abraham and M R Madhavan in Pragati)

Here’s a discussion with Mr Choudhry on the topic.

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Why the IT rules are bad. And how they can be reversed.

The IT rules are an unacceptable infringement of our freedom

The new IT rules put in place by the UPA government earlier this year have received far less public attention than they should. We covered them in this month’s issue of Pragati. One of the speakers at the recent Takshashila Shala described the damage they can do. In today’s DNA column I suggest how we, as ordinary citizens, can use constitutional methods to call for these rules to be reviewed. Write to your MP.

The following is the unedited draft of the piece published in DNA today.

So your daughter is finishing college soon. She’s waiting for entrance exam results and also applying for some jobs. Would you permit the guy who runs the neighbourhood internet browsing shop to know her name, address, phone number and keep her photograph? Would you be comfortable if he knows which websites she has been accessing? Probably not. Now prepared to be shocked. Under the new Rules under the Information Technology Act (IT rules), the Government of India requires cyber cafe operators to collect this information about your daughter. You’ll probably protect your daughter’s privacy by buying her a personal computer but what about the millions of fathers that can’t afford one?

But why does the government require your daughter to provide personal information to a stranger? National security, perhaps. After all terrorists have been using cyber cafes and unsecured Wi Fi connections to send manifestos (usually in bad English) and claim responsibility for attacks. So if cyber cafe operators collect the names and photographs of all their customers, the authorities will be able to quickly identify the terrorists the next time they send an email message. This is an excellent method to catch last year’s terrorists. Prospective terrorists are either unlikely to use cyber cafes because of these restrictions or if they do, provide false information.

The inability to use cyber cafes isn’t going to deter terrorists. It’s only going to cause them to use different tactics. Ordinary citizens however will suffer risks to their privacy. Cyber cafe owners will have yet another set of regulations to comply with. The unscrupulous among them might try to get around these rules through the well-known route of bribing the inspector. The inspector, who, among other matters has the authority to determine whether or not the partition between two cubicles is no more than 52 inches high, will have to avoid the temptation of looking the other way for a fee. If the Lok Pal comes in to effect, it might have to appoint an army of inspectors to investigate allegations against the army of cyber cafe inspectors that’ll will have to be appointed for the purpose of measuring the dimensions of cyber cafe partitions. The Lok Pal’s inspectors themselves, as we all know, will be extraordinary, incorruptible individuals, unlike cyber cafe inspectors.

And you ask why corruption is growing?

Maybe cyber cafes don’t concern you. What about free speech, which makes it possible for me to disparage the IT rules as being poorly considered? Under the new rules, users cannot post material online that is “grossly harmful, harassing, blasphemous, defamatory, obscene, pornographic, paedophilic, libellous, invasive of another’s privacy, hateful, or racially, ethnically objectionable, disparaging, relating or encouraging money laundering or gambling, or otherwise unlawful in any manner”. And who gets to decide what constitutes any of the above? No, not a magistrate or even a government officer. Anyone can send a notice to the owner of a website giving notice of a violation under any of the loose, subjective criteria. It then must be taken down within 36 hours.

Complain about bad service from an airline on your blog, and they can send a take down notice claiming it is defamatory, libellous or disparaging. In the hands of the easily outraged, aggressively hypersensitive and competitively intolerant sections of our population this will have the effect of further chilling freedom of expression. Moreover, the inclusion of the word blasphemy in that list makes you wonder which country we are in.

Actually, we don’t need these new rules to protect us from libel, paedophiles or incitement to violence. There are existing laws for that. A libel is a libel whether committed on paper or in ether. These rules, though, have the unacceptable consequence of stifling free speech. They weaken the ordinary citizen and put another coercive tool in the hands of the powerful and the intolerant. They must be reviewed.

Even though they came into force recently, they can be reversed. The government must place these rules before Parliament, which can amend these rules. All it takes is for one MP to demand a discussion. There is time but it is short..only until Budget Session 2012. Here’s what’s doable: write, call or visit your MPs. Write to the leaders of the political party you support. You’ll find their contact information at http://is.gd/loksabha and http://is.gd/rajyasabha. Explain to them that the IT rules are an unacceptable infringement of our freedom. Ask them to demand a discussion on the floor of Parliament. The government has exceeded the authority given it by Parliament and every MP should be concerned.

The rules can also be challenged in court, especially by persons who are directly affected by it. A well-drafted PIL in the Supreme Court is also possible.

The awakening of middle India this year can yet lead to better governance if we adhere to constitutional methods. It’s not going to be easy. Parliament is not what it once was. For years, it has not changed a single rule tabled by the government. But how hard is it to write to your MP? Your letter might make a difference.

© 2011 Diligent Media Corporation Ltd. Do not reproduce without permission.

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The return of information silos

Wikileaks will have long term consequences on how government’s share information

What Julian Assange and Wikileaks have done with privileged US government is plain wrong. Arrogant and self-righteous, the indiscriminate publication of internal discussions, assessments and correspondence cannot be justified on grounds of freedom of information. To suggest that all information must be made public, regardless of time, place, and context—ostensibly the grounds which Wikileaks uses to justify its anarchism—is to condemn government officials to life in a Panopticon. If everything a government official says and writes is liable to become public the next moment, you will only have self-censorship, political correctness and worse, a greater tendency to avoid putting debates and decisions on record. A government that can’t deliberate in private will be paralysed or ineffective, mostly both. The legality of Mr Assange’s actions is still under debate. The sensibility is not in question. It is senseless.

This time, it is also interesting.

In the cables released yesterday, there are few things that we didn’t know or suspect: Saudi Arabia and Israel both want someone to stop Iran’s nuclear programme; the Saudis detest the Iranians they see as ‘Persian’; King Abdullah is not well disposed towards Asif Zardari or that China facilitated the transfer of North Korean ballistic missile technology to Iran. It is the details make the cables interesting. Not least from a voyeur’s perspective.

It’s unclear whether the Wikileaks will have major consequences in world affairs beyond creating embarrassment for the people and governments involved. It’s not as if the people in the Middle East didn’t know what their leaders were up to, and what US officials thought of them. It’s not as if China is about to stop its game as the world’s worst proliferator of weapons of mass destruction just because it has been fingered in some cables. Politicians, in any case, have thick skins.

What might happen is that brakes will be applied in the trend towards sharing of information within government and across departmental silos. A process that began as a result of the US intelligence community’s failure to piece together data that could have led to the uncovering of the 9/11 plot—and was adopted by governments across the world, including in India—might come to an end with abuse of technological power by Wikileaks. ‘Information fusion’ within governments is likely to be the first casualty of Mr Assange’s war on responsibility.

Update: Well, here we are:

In addition to vowing to hold WikiLeaks to account, the administration also instituted new measures to try to prevent leaks.

Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob J. Lew instructed government departments and agencies to ensure that users of classified information networks do not have broader access than is necessary to do their jobs, and to restrict the use of removable media such as CDs or flash drives on such networks.

OMB, the federal Information Security Oversight Office and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence will evaluate aid the agencies in their efforts to strengthen classified information security, Lew said.

The White House move in turn comes a day after the Pentagon announced similar steps to bolster network security following a review ordered by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in August. [WP]

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Vyuha – a new blog on The Indian National Interest

Perspectives on cyber strategy

Srijith K Nair joins us on INI, with Vyuha where he:

aims to explore the cyber security strategies (and to a lesser extent, the overarching information security aspects) that are of paramount importance to India in this networked 21st century and beyond.? Towards this end we will be covering important events and developments that shape this area while expounding our views on the issues. In doing so we hope to influence, ever so slightly at the least, the doctrines and the key players involved in promulgating them. [Vyuha]

Srijith is fellow for cyber strategy at The Takshashila Institution’s national security programme. The new blog will feature posts by Srijith and his colleagues at the cyber strategy policy research team.

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Which voice came from the mouthpiece?

As long as China controls its information landscape, it will be responsible for being misunderstood

How seriously should you take vitriolic—or soothing—opinion that comes out of China over the internet? Ananth Krishnan warns against the tendency to assume every voice is that of a government mouthpiece.

News reports also claimed the write-up could not have been published without the permission of the Chinese authorities — another dubious claim tied to the simplistic notion that the Chinese government vets every opinion expressed on all of China’s hundreds of political websites. The Chinese government blocks and censors numerous websites that are politically sensitive, discussing subjects like the Tiananmen Square protests or the Falun Gong. But suggesting that the government controls and moderates debates and political opinions in blogs and newspapers is a stretch.

It also belies a lack of understanding of the changing nature of China’s information landscape. China has 338 million Internet users and more than 100 million blogs and websites, such as the one where this post first appeared. It only takes a quick glance through half a dozen such sites—even “influential” ones—to look at the divergence of opinions and vibrancy of debates, with many voices even strongly criticising the Communist Party and its government. Yet the simplistic perception still endures in India that in authoritarian China, every analyst or writer must surely speak in the same voice.

Interpreting information from these four avenues is further complicated by the fact that they are sometimes inter-linked. For instance, the Chinese government sometimes uses influential think-tanks to hint at changes in policy. Views and opinions from mainstream Chinese newspapers and think-tanks must indeed be taken seriously in India. But at the same time, a more nuanced understanding of China’s information landscape is needed to avoid shrill hyper-reactions to anonymous bloggers and irrelevant fringe groups.

This is crucial to creating a level of discourse in India that allows for a deeper, more meaningful engagement with China’s opportunities and threats. [The Hindu]

That is a very sensible conclusion. What it does not state explicitly is that much of the reason why China is misunderstood to the extent that it is, is because of China itself. The lack of transparency in public discourse, the overbearing role of the state in permitting some views while going to great lengths to proscribe others, and the deliberately unclear linkages among the party, government, academia and media often results in people assuming the worst.

A relatively harmless result of this is the demonisation of China in societies that deal with it. More dangerous is the mistaking of noise for signal—it’s bad for everyone if the fulminations of an “angry youth” run the risk of being confused with tacit but deliberate military threats issued by a key senior official. If China doesn’t want to be misunderstood, it should do its part first.

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The stuff for military novels (2)

The flying assassin

In line with what some readers suggested, and also in line with Sharon Weiberger’s post over at Danger Room, the new secret technique that the Americans have brought to bear in counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan-Pakistan (possibly) involves unmanned aerial vehicles fitted with a networked “tagging, tracking and locating” system.

The new system now being deployed was first used on aircraft in Afghanistan, then was installed on Predators in Iraq starting about a year ago. Officials said introduction of the devices coincided with the 2007 U.S. troop buildup in Iraq, and was an important, but hitherto unknown, factor in the subsequent drop in violence in that country.

The technology allows suspects to be identified quickly. “All I have to do is point the sensor at him,” said a military officer familiar with the system, “and a missile can be off the rail in seconds.”

The devices are roughly the size of an automobile battery, but are heavy enough that outfitted Predators in some cases carry only one Hellfire missile instead of two. At times, the systems also have been in short supply, requiring that crews move the devices from one Predator to another as they land and take off.

The unique capabilities have prompted competition among U.S. forces for access to specially equipped Predators, military officials said. The fleet being assembled for use in Pakistan has been assigned to the CIA and U.S. Special Operations Command, meaning fewer of the aircraft are available for conventional forces. [LAT, linkthanks Vivek Hirpara]

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The stuff for military novels

A revolution in counter-insurgency affairs?

Bob Woodward claims that the United States used a new “secret technique” in its counter-insurgency operations in Iraq.

But beyond all of that, Woodward reports, for the first time, that there is a secret behind the success of the surge: a sophisticated and lethal special operations program.

“This is very sensitive and very top secret, but there are secret operational capabilities that have been developed by the military to locate, target, and kill leaders of al Qaeda in Iraq, insurgent leaders, renegade militia leaders. That is one of the true breakthroughs,” Woodward told Pelley.

“But what are we talking about here? It’s some kind of surveillance? Some kind of targeted way of taking out just the people that you’re looking for? The leadership of the enemy?” Pelley asked.

“I’d love to go through the details, but I’m not going to,” Woodward replied.

“Do you mean to say that this special capability is such an advance in military technique and technology that it reminds you of the advent of the tank and the airplane?” Pelley asked.

“Yeah,” Woodward said. “If you were an al Qaeda leader or part of the insurgency in Iraq, or one of these renegade militias, and you knew about what they were able to do, you’d get your ass outta town.” [CBS News]

Mr Woodward doesn’t offer more details—not even in his new book—but adds to the suspense by saying that “it is the stuff of which military novels are written.”

Meanwhile, Dawn‘s correspondent thinks that the same technique is being used by US forces against Taliban militants in Pakistan’s FATA. Whatever the technique is, to the extent that it increases collateral damage, it is bound to have different effects in the Pashtun geography.

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