Is the Big Brother watching? | Book review: ‘What Privacy Means’ by Siddharth Sonkar

At 414 pages, What Privacy Means can be a long read. It’s not an easy book either, especially for those with no legal background or knowledge on privacy. However, the writer has explained each and every nuance in the simplest way possible, which can make your task easier.

Also, most of us know how we are shown various ads based on our browsing history and activity online.
Also, most of us know how we are shown various ads based on our browsing history and activity online.

By Shubhangi Shah

During the strict Covid-induced lockdown, the government used drones to ensure compliance with safety norms. Then, it was to address a public health concern. However, the same was used during the anti-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) protests and those against the Centre’s three farm laws. In the absence of any privacy-related safeguards over how the footage obtained from these aerial vehicles be used, doesn’t it infringe upon our right to privacy and to protest? You will be faced with this question and many more in Siddharth Sonkar’s What Privacy Means: Why It Matters and How We Can Protect It.

The Central Monitoring System (CMS) under which the telecom service providers have to implement capabilities for the government to monitor our telephone and mobile communications, the Network Traffic Analysis System (NETRA)—a software that allows real-time surveillance of internet traffic— and the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID) that enables state agencies to gather data from various databases such as credit and debit cards, passports, driving licences, etc, are just some of the surveillance tools employed by the government. Most of these were introduced in the wake of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks to augment national security. But is mass surveillance the only way out?

The alleged use of Israeli spyware Pegasus by the Centre against prominent journalists, activists and opposition leaders and the Bhima Koregaon case, in which the police seized mobile phones and laptops of human rights activists and lawyers, are some of the examples Sonkar mentions where there is an intersection between the freedom to dissent, right to privacy and surveillance. “Excessive surveillance undermines the relationship of power between citizens and the state, crippling democracy itself,” the writer observes.

Looking at the above cases, it appears that the issue of public and national security is always at loggerheads with the right to privacy. However, for a functioning democracy and a safe society, both are equally crucial. So, what’s the way forward? The answer might lie in a law enacted by Parliament, which creates “sufficient privacy safeguards”, Sonkar opines. In fact, he stresses upon this several times in his book.

In the Orwellian dystopia set in 1984, Big Brother meant the dictator, read as the state. He controlled everything— from what one could buy, read, and even whom one could date.

Have you ever wondered how Tinder, the online dating app, works? In an aptly-titled section ‘When Cupid Breaks Our Trust’, Sonkar quotes freelance journalist Judith Duportail who, in her book L’Amour sous algorithme (Love under Algorithm), “discovered that Tinder uses a desirability rank known as the Elo Score,” a claim rejected by the app. This score “classifies users in relation to their intelligence, preferences, wealth, ethnicity, intelligence, and attractiveness”. In other words, it ranks profiles and finds matches accordingly.

Blank vertical book template.

Also, most of us know how we are shown various ads based on our browsing history and activity online. Doesn’t it determine what we buy, to some extent? Yes, “we access internet platforms including social media for free. However, we pay with our time and attention—but more importantly, our fading ability to make decisions about our purchases without undue influence”, Sonkar writes. “The Internet services we assume are free, are actually paid by the advertisers,” he adds. Taking these into account, doesn’t the line between the tech companies and the power held by the Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984 seem to be a bit blurred?

At 414 pages, What Privacy Means can be a long read. It’s not an easy book either, especially for those with no legal background or knowledge on privacy. However, the writer has explained each and every nuance in the simplest way possible, which can make your task easier. A tip would be to read the book at a slow pace understanding the various nuances that the writer delves into, otherwise, you might be clueless if the same terms pop up later.

In his work, Sonkar has tried to cover all the major developments regarding the right to privacy, from Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations to Pegasus, and from India’s Data Privacy Bill to how tech companies crunch users’ data. Some parts can feel repetitive, such as how social media uses our data, the Srikrishna Committee report, and the need for checks and balances when it comes to surveillance and privacy laws, which have been mentioned multiple times and at multiple places in the book. However, do take the time to read it as you’ll stumble upon such facts, questions and issues that will caution you on one hand, and make you feel empowered on the other.

What Privacy Means: Why It Matters and How We Can Protect It
Siddharth Sonkar
Hachette
Pp 384, Rs 462

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