(GUEST) How Modern Surveillance States Benefit from Catastrophes

Only once we begin to envision a future without states can we begin envisioning a future without carcerality.

📝 Monthly Round-Up

India’s Engineers Have Thrived In Silicon Valley. So Has Its Caste System., Nitasha Tiku — You could list off a number of ways that the tech industry is lacking in diversity. But for many, caste may not make the list. In this article, Tiku breaks down how caste discrimination shows up in tech spaces in the United States.

Surveillance of Minority Muslims In Southern Thailand Is Powered by Chinese-style Tech, Nithin Coca —What does biometric surveillance look like outside of the U.S.? Who does it target? Here, Coca shows the impacts of biometrics like DNA collection and other forms of surveillance on Malay Muslims in Thailand.

Apps Are Now Putting the Parole Agent In Your Pocket, Sidney Fussell — Technology changes lives — and not always for the better. Just look at e-carceration. Here, Fussel breaks down one form: apps like Tracktech and Uptrust that remotely monitor parolees and those on probation.


With the coronavirus pandemic, a number of nations have used the excuse of protecting public health to launch new surveillance measures. For this guest article, Rhiannon Jones spoke to Rajesh Soundararajan, a former executive at Microsoft and IBM, about how this is playing out in India.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, a number of countries have developed contact tracing apps. While supporters argue that these apps are necessary to combat the ongoing pandemic, others have raised questions about what it means for citizens’ privacy. In India, these concerns arose after the Narendra Modi administration mandated that over 50 million people download the COVID-19 tracking app, Aarogya Setu. 

Failure to download Aarogya Setu carried heavy penalties: In Noida, a city in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, it was punishable by a fine of 1,000 rupees or six months in jail. This applied to those traveling to Noida from outside the city as well. As a result, many Indians remained apprehensive about using Aarogya Setu. There were concerns that information about their movements, contacts, and more, would be vulnerable as the government could not reassure citizens that their information was not being outsourced to third party private contractors. The lack of reassurance is largely because India has weak data protection laws; in fact, there is no specific legislation for data protection at all. The current regulatory mechanism in India, the Information Technology Act of 2000, is used to hold corporate entities accountable, not the state.  

Over the past six years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has expanded the surveillance state.  Under his administration, UK tech firm Comparitech observed that India authorized numerous government agencies to monitor information on any computer, attempted to get Facebook to make Whatsapp messages traceable, and maintained vague CCTV regulations. The Aadhaar system, one of the biggest concerns, hosts a biometric database containing information about over 1 billion people. 

If we can admit that surveillance mechanisms are used to the detriment of citizens, and that this is a symptom of the general functioning of any state apparatus, surveillance and states become inextricable. The conclusion becomes that the state functions to suppress and exploit its citizens, and only once we begin to envision a future without states can we begin envisioning a future without carcerality.

To help with this mission, Rajesh Soundararajan, a former executive at Microsoft and IBM and the founder of his own start up, FutureShift Consulting, makes clear some of the factors that made it conducive for the Indian government to mandate the use of Aarogya Setu successfully. He discusses the ways in which India’s rapidly right-trending political trajectory, the religious nationalism that propelled Modi to victory, and weak data protection and privacy laws made this possible.

*

While politicians like Rahul Gandhi have spoken out about [Aarogya Setu], many parliament members belonging to the BJP-India’s Hindu nationalist political party-have dismissed it as fearmongering. Where is this disconnect coming from? 

Rajesh Soundararajan: Yes, there has been some feeble opposition from political parties. It is only Rahul Gandhi who had a semblance of resistance to the privacy issues around the app. After so much opposition to the app, changes to the app were made and it was also made open source. The App was not open source before and was not in the public domain earlier. Now it is.

But it is also a fact that the current government enjoys the support of a majority of people who do not understand privacy issues or care about them. They believe that this is a benign government and such loss of privacy is required to keep a nation together. 

Looking at the countries still dealing with a severe COVID-19 crisis, India seems to be among those most frequently accused of moving in an increasingly authoritarian direction. Dozens of journalists based in India were arrested for publishing articles criticizing the government’s actions in curtailing the spread of COVID-19. What kind of relationship does this mean the ruling party has with the media? Do you think the Indian political process is taking on an authoritarian character? 

Citizens should have the freedom of speech to question the intent and the actions of the government without fear of retribution. It is true that the data collection and person-tracking can easily be abused by a police state. The media is a mouthpiece of the ruling party and questions the opposition than the government, so the nay-sayers are systematically annihilated and obliterated with coercion, suppression of voices, or pure destruction of credibility. They are being called anti-national and thus, the negative voices are quelled.

We discussed authoritarianism. Let’s shift our focus to surveillance states in particular. India has been called a surveillance state by critics. Do you believe that this claim reflects the reality Indians face? 

The fear of an external and often non-existent enemy either internally or externally is often roused, and nationalism or religious majoritarianism is usually provided as succor to the problem. Propaganda feeds such a fear based out of ignorance by providing small steps of surveillance as a solution to the problem, and by offering it in doses. Unlike in dictatorial regimes, modern surveillance states do that in a calibrated fashion, by imposing small restrictions – one at a time and by fine tuning the propaganda. A glorified national mascot often sculpted as flawless super-hero is created, and that image is meticulously built to ensure that citizens see the Big Brother as the only savior. Over time with small but consistent actions such states become surveillance states, and most citizens wouldn’t even realize. 

Rhiannon Jones is a psychology student pursuing a neuroscience concentration. She is interested in movements that aid communities targeted and affected by western imperialism.  You can reach her at rhiannonjones954@gmail.com.


📌 Organizing

How To Be Anti-Caste In Tech, Tech Workers Coalition — I became aware of this resource after it was retweeted by Equality Labs. I will be the first to admit that I do not know much about caste discrimination and had not considered how it manifested in tech spaces in the United States, so I found this to be helpful.

Community-Compiled Global Surveillance Database, Because We’ve Read — You might first know Because We’ve Read as a bookclub. Right now, Because We’ve Read is asking its global community to help build a database to watch the watchers back by documenting surveillance (i.e.; security cameras along a city block) and submitting it to the form linked above.

Mapping Surveillance Camera Rebate Programs — I also want to raise my work mapping surveillance rebate programs. You can review the project introduction here. If you know of any programs that I missed, please submit them to this form. I am including programs outside of the United States!