Big Brother is Watching

The institute is incorporating an ever-increas­ing variety of surveillance measures to place tabs on students and other members of the campus community. Let’s analyze the extent to which these surveillance measures intrude on our privacy, why it is a big deal, and the psychological, ethical, and societal problems associated with this.

Surveillance in the institute

Dataveillance and Online Privacy: Is our browsing data, e-mail and other personal accounts on various servers monitored and logged?

The Computer Centre’s Privacy Policy for computer accounts, point 2 states “The institute, being the owner of the computer resources provided to its employees and students with the primary objective of facilitating academic work, reserves the right to access personal account of any such person on reasonable suspicion, supported by evidences such as download logs that the account stores and/or disseminates illegal material such as copyrighted or pirated material, hate mails, pornography etc.” This is also in agreement with the IT policy signed by you (Point 8) “I understand that the IT resources provided to me are subject to monitoring …

As per the privacy statement, if the download logs are to be used as an evidence to access your e-mail or other computer accounts, it inherently dictates that all the browsing data and downloads are logged for every LDAP account and are accessible to determine any objectionable doing. Download logs seem to be treated as open knowledge. Apart from being a breach of privacy in itself (which is often passed off stating security reasons), it raises a variety of other concerns and questions. What measures are in place to protect the data from misuse and how strong/effective is it? Who is authorised to view your download logs and what qualifies as “reasonable suspicion”? The institute should clarify some details and come up with a more descriptive privacy policy.

Omniscience – CCTV Surveillance: CCTVs are employed as surveillance mechanisms in a myriad of places in the institute including the gates, the front (and backs) of all the department buildings, in auditoriums like FC Kohli etc. Some rather surprising and lesser known locations include a few labs in the chemistry department with the stated reason being that the exp-eriments (and inevitably the RAs in the lab too) can be monitored by the professors from the comfort of their homes. The surveillance cameras in Hostel 11 mess kitchen is supposedly meant to be used as evidence by the hostel council if a disagreement or quarrel among the mess workers arises. Whilst the CCTVs at the gates can be passed off as ‘security reasons’, most others are absurd and a violent breach of privacy.

The Biometrics: Biometrics seem to be the latest toy at the hands of an institute already bit by the surveillance bug. Earlier, the biometric access restrictions were applicable only at research labs (mainly for access control). However, recently, an increased presence of biometrics is observed in residential areas. For instance, Hostel 5 has biometric verification at the mess and the computer room. The GSHA says that biometrics would soon be installed in all hostel messes and all hostel common areas. The development of an institute-wide biometric database (as in the case of the 2011 freshmen for attendance purposes) and biometric access restrictions at various places in the institute is also in pipeline. While the biometrics at the messes can be acceptable due to reasons of ease of operation with respect to mess bill calculation, the others seem rather dodgy; their effectiveness and the ethical aspects are deeply questionable.

Non-electronic Surveillance – The Classic Way: How many incidents have there been of our security pulling students over in the night (especially couples) and demand for their ID cards? Although in many cases the security personnel may very well know that they are students, it is still being done, possibly due to moral policing reasons. With no disrespect to their dedicated service, isn’t the precise reason that they are employed is to enable us wander freely within the campus without worries? Is it worth getting so paranoid about security in an educational institute at the cost of affecting the positive academic atmosphere? We might want to consider taking a leaf out of IISc’s book in this regard. IISc, for instance, vehemently opposed tighten­ing security even after the 2005 attacks as it believed that the essence of a open, educative atmosphere would be lost by such a move.

Why is This Even an Issue?

There are several problems and serious concerns with growing into a surveillance society, especially as an educational institution. As David Lyon, the notable sociologist in Surveillance Studies says, “Surveillance has two faces – safety and control. However in most situations, the controlling face dominates under the cover of safety, thus feeding on individual liberty”

Invasion of Privacy: An individual’s privacy is inevita­bly trampled upon by surveillance. But, why is privacy so important to you? After all, if you have nothing to hide, why do have a problem? This particular question can also be interpreted as the totalitarian statement, “As long as you do what you’re told, you have nothing to fear”, the ethical aspects of which are highly objec­tionable in a democratic world.

The right to privacy is a most basic, most human need: the need for our space. We all need our space for a variety of important reasons: psychological, ethical, political, societal among others. Feeling like your every move is monitored and recorded is not only disturbing, but downright scary. As privacy creates a space within which we can act autonomously without expecting judgement from others, the private space is the main source for autonomous judgement, on which a democracy thrives. In a surveillant environment which inhibits autonomy in situations that involve value-judgements by constantly enforcing conformity to rules, all the value-judgments are already made and materialised by a “big brother”. The ability of a person to judge ethically is thus substituted by the mere need to conform to these rules.

Misuse and Abuse of Data: The data captured and logged through surveillance becomes easily susceptible to misuse and abuse. The idea of my movement around the institute logged by these machines at various places makes me highly uncomfortable. Personal comfort aside, the potential dangers of misuse of the logged data is tremendous. The data, for instance, could be used for personal profiling which could give valuable information regarding a person’s behaviour which could be further misused to a great extent.

Indian Institute of Science (IISc) recently saw a protest against the UID project by students and faculty members. They argue that a secure electronic archive is just a myth and is a huge potential threat to the security of every individual. Such identification projects have already been tried, tested and given up as infeasible and rather dangerous by several counties – A classic example would be the failure of the National Identification Scheme (NIS) of the UK, after spending a lot of pounds on it.

A Feeling of Mistrust and Tailoring of Behaviour: The presence of CCTVs in labs or in the mess kitchens tends to make its occupants highly mistrusted. When we turn to surveillance as a quick fix, it enforces a climate of fear and distrust, undermining the social ecology of the campus, instead of actually having an impact on the identified problem. The message it sends to students and employees is “We don’t trust you, and everybody is a suspect”. The more the restrictions that are imposed on students, the more likely it is to impress upon a student that he or she is inherently untrust­worthy and that people who have authority may wield it without regard to individual liberties.

Some critics, such as Michel Foucault, believe that in addition to its obvious function of identifying and capturing individuals who are committing ‘undesir­able’ acts, surveillance also functions to create in everyone a feeling of always being watched, so that they become self-policing. People tailor their behaviour to fit what they believe the observer wants. An analogy might be the well-studied population of children with overprotective mothers. Studies show that such children inevitably tend to be indecisive, dependent on others, have little ‘ethical competence’ and often live suppressed and unhappy lives.

Lack of Effectiveness: Surveillance has not been proven as effective as one might think. Studies done in California and London have found that security cameras had little to no effect on reducing the crime rate. In fact, sociologists argue that it even has a negative impact as it instils a false sense of security which usually leads to security personnel being more careless.

Let’s also look at the effectiveness of restriction systems like in the hostels. For instance, even if a hostel computer room is locked biometrically, one could just very easily follow a hostel inmate who is entering the room! The worthiness of spending this much as opposed to the obtained benefits is something that should definitely be rethought.

A learning environment in an educational institu­tion has to be a positive and a trusting one that aids both personal and societal development. Security is of course important but we need to realise what we’re giving up in order to obtain a little temporary security – we need to know where to draw the line. Many institutes around the globe have already woken up to privacy issues and have realized its importance. Some of them even have a dedicated official known as the Chief Privacy Officer (CPO) who is responsible for ensuring the privacy of the members of the campus. Maybe it is time that we woke up too?

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety. – Benjamin Franklin

This article is solely the writer’s personal view and not neces­sarily that of InsIghT