It’s ok for government to infiltrate online privacy of Sri Lankan citizens?

A wide-ranging interview published in the Daily Mirror with Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, also the brother of the President, addresses the issue of internet and web surveillance. The relevant excerpt follows:

As an IT expert, do you think that it is ethical for a government to infiltrate into the online privacy of Sri Lankan citizens by gathering information, with regard to their political affiliations?

Actually, if we could do that it would be good, however as a third world country we don’t have that facility. But in all other developed countries they monitor emails, telephone conversations, SMS and people in the streets. So they have a lot of monitoring systems and also all their systems are integrated. Unfortunately, ours is not. All security agencies in these countries could, by simply giving a number; they can obtain all the details of a person. But we don’t have that facility and in fact we have to develop such a system.

Our ID card system is not effective, so we have to introduce a better system. We faced a situation in the past 4 years, we saw the weakness of the ID card system, where every suicide carder and terrorist had a bogus ID. Further our passport system is not fool-proof.

We don’t have a close CCTV surveillance system in Colombo; whereas in all the other big cities they are monitored.

We cant monitor SMS’s or email, we need to have such a system but we don’t and we are not doing it.

While it is not true that all developed countries monitor internet, web and mobile communications, many in fact do. As I noted in When even democracies go awry with online dissent, Australia, the United Kingdom, France, Thailand, Indonesia and even the United States are guilty of online filtering, blocking and surveillance. As I wrote then, it is extremely important that we condemn these proposed and enacted measures as vehemently as we decry actions and policies to censor online content by regimes like China, Iran, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

And yet, the clear and present danger of the kind of pervasive surveillance championed by the Defence Secretary in post-war Sri Lanka is best expressed by Tapan Bose, a well known Indian journalist, film producer and political activist.

Today, in Sri Lanka nobody feels safe. There is an elected president. The election to the parliament has just been held. Yet this is the country where the main opposition candidate in the presidential election was summarily taken away by the military police and is now being forced to face military court martial on trumped-up charges. In Sri Lanka, whether one is a businessman or a politician or a judge or a media person no one escape the scrutiny of the intelligence wings of the state. The most powerful organ of the state is the intelligence apparatus of the government. This is return to the “Arthashastra”, ancient Indian treaties on governance written by Chanakya. The advice of Chanakya to the “Prince” was that the success of the regime depended on the system’s ability to get the subjects to spy on each other and constantly report to the state. (Review of Sri Lanka: The Emergence Of The Power Of The Intelligence Apparatus, published in Sri Lanka Guardian)

One also recalls columnist Kumar David’s dire prediction earlier this year – which I flagged in Sri Lankan President halts web censorship, which raises more vital questions.

The problem is this, the government will get draconian measures ready but will not reveal them till after the elections – why give the opposition another handle to beat it with – then will come the LIDA communication straight-jacket and legislation to smother dissent.

Prima facie, what Gotabaya Rajapaksa points to is certainly desirable from the perspective of intelligence operations to thwart terrorism. But the real fear, given the government’s noted tendency to clamp down on dissent and political opposition is that a sophisticated surveillance system will lead to persecution, execution and censorship – in sum, a system in the control of a few in government to contain and control media and content.

We have such efforts before., now largely forgotten, has gone through two versions without any significant improvement. The first version was downright farcical. The second version was no less bizarre and dysfunctional. I have never bothered to enter my details into this site and once told the Cinnamon Gardens Police, who politely insisted I enter my details to this system, to come back with the legal basis that required me to do so. They have not stepped into office since. So clearly, we already have intrusive websites created and promoted by government with no legal basis that at their most benign, serve no purpose other than to replicate information already in multiple locations in the administration.

In sum, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is in favour of a Police state. There is nothing more important for him than command and control of citizenry, a mindset that fuels an architecture of monitoring private communications and public media inimical to democracy given the lack of legal redress and quite often, the extra-judicial nature of government reprisals. Sadly too, there is no progressive vision here for the use of ICTs to strengthen government. Initiatives like the US State Department’s Opinion Space, or one of my own through Groundviews to foster progressive ideas on democracy, are not even on the radar of this government or its supine puppet, the ICT Agency.

Kumar David may well be correct. Given the bent of the Defence Secretary, post-war Sri Lanka is set to head into an Internet dark age.

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