Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Security vs. Privacy...among other things...

I just came across this excellent article on the security-privacy relationship in an increasingly insecure world. Bruce Schneier sums up all the post-September 11 drama in two words: security and privacy. Which would you choose? About 90% of my readers would probably say security. After all, what exactly do you do with privacy if you are not alive to enjoy it. This issue has been consistently and constantly debated and analysed by experts around the world in the years after the September 11 attacks. But, what Schneier says is interesting. He says that the dichotomy is, in itself false. He argues, rather effectively, that the question is one of freedom and control rather than of security and privacy. I agree. After all, my identity and freedom are at stake. I should be the one who decides what to reveal and what to hide. That freedom is increasingly being taken away from individuals in the name of security.

There is increasing awareness of security threats, and attempts to plug the holes in an extremely ineffective security system. Take the airports for instance. No Indian airport allows passengers to carry on more that one piece of cabin baggage, including laptop computer. That forces the poor passenger to make the difficult choice of checking in either the precious computer, or valuable documents in the carry-on bag. In short, the unsuspecting passenger has no choice. While such ridiculous rules may be justified by lack of cabin space, they make no sense when they are intended to make travel more secure. What exactly can I do with an extra file of college certificates? Blow up the aircraft? Give me a break. Equally dumb is the no-liquids rule. Even a bottle of water, or baby food is subjected to thorough checks. If I were a terrorist, I would not carry an obvious explosive on board. I would find better, and more ingenuous ways of making my plan work.

And then, there are biometric identifiers. While I would not object to giving my fingerprint to the passport office so they can issue biometric passports, I would have a serious problem with other identification methods like DNA analysis. With a tissue from the inside of my cheek, the government can get information that is entirely personal, like the state of my health and my susceptibility to heart attacks. Even if there is no danger of my DNA sample being exploited without my consent, biometric identifiers are, by no means, foolproof. I am reminded, rather forcefully, of the opening pages of the Dan Brown novel, "Angels and Demons", where a man is discovered lying dead on the ground, with his eye ripped off to be used in an iris scanner. Scary thought, that. In short, I cannot help but agree with Schneier's contention that a false dichotomy is created intentionally, to override any major concerns of privacy invasion. After all, most people would choose security over privacy.

On an unrelated note, I recently read on the India Uncut blog that a certain Mr. Prakash Kumar Thakur from Bhopal specialises in prosecuting people for showing disrespect to the national flag. On reading the related Indian Express article, I was convinced that the man is simply desperate for some media attention. I think Amit Varma is being too generous by calling such people Mera Bhaarat Mahaan patriots. I am quite convinced that such actions have nothing to do with patriotism. They are simply a rather desperate attempt to stand up and be counted. Our revered Mr. Thakur has done nothing worth commending. Nor does he seem capable of doing much. No wonder he specialises in prosecuting people (ever wondered why the victims are always celebrities?) for "disrespecting" the national flag/anthem/song/bird/dog poop...

And finally, Harbhajan Singh has finally been let off the hook for racial abuse. While the verdict is welcome, the BCCI has behaved rather like a petulant child in the issue. I did say earlier that the Indian team must come back home if the Aussies cannot stop being so arrogant. To their credit, they have behaved themselves, losing touch with their cricketing talent in the process. While the BCCI was right to threaten cancellation of the tour if Harbhajan was not given a second hearing, they had no business demanding a favourable verdict. As I said in my earlier post, the Proctor decision was miscarriage of justice. After all, Proctor had no evidence whatsoever against Harbhajan Singh and relied entirely on the testimonies of three Australian players. That said, the demand of the BCCI to drop all charges against Harbhajan is unfair too. If Proctor was wrong to indict without evidence, the Appeals Commissioner would be wrong to let him off the hook despite (possible, new) evidence. When the judge wanted to hear the stump mikes, the BCCI reacted childishly, by refusing to accept any new evidence that might exist. There are limits to the BCCI's blackmail. I vigorously defended India's right to throw its weight around and get things done. But that should not result in the BCCI deciding the outcome of a misbehaviour hearing. That would put the entire game in jeopardy, and any country with money would then be able to decide the outcome of a hearing through blackmail. And that is injurious, both to India's reputation as a cricketing nation, and to the governance of the game.

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