Blurred lines: Surveillance and ethics

I was invited to deliver a short-talk, as part of a public discussion looking at ‘Cross Cutting Dynamics of Online Democracy: Mainstreaming Internet Freedom and the Right to Privacy in Sri Lanka”, at the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) on 21 March 2017.

The programme can be downloaded here. The panel included old friends Nalaka Gunawardene, Subha Wijesiriwardena, Jayantha Fernando and others.

Partly because the title I was given from BASL was indecipherable, and partly also because I wanted to identify threats and opportunities on the horizon and not just what jurisprudence and the legal system had to deal with today, I opted to focus on the role, nature and scope of surveillance in Sri Lanka, as we know it, and implications for personal privacy. In the presentation I also focussed more broadly on the intrusive nature of web, cloud and social media services, siphoning ever increasing information produced by us for a process of monetization that is essentially the commodification of personal data.

Covering the rise of psychometric targeting, the passive yet pervasive harvesting of personal data by corporate entities, I also looked at AI technologies that now have the capability to mirror the discursive patterns of actual humans.

Noting the rise of a post-privacy world, at least related to traditional notions of privacy (I didn’t talk about the far more complex theories around differential privacy and big data, championed by the likes of Apple and Google), I also noted that the concern post-Snowden in particular is that States and corporations now have the ability to track or target individuals at scale. I flagged the atrocious nvestigatory Powers Act 2016 or Snoopers’ Charter in the United Kingdom as an example of how legislation today seriously eroded personal privacy.

I then showcased, based on court records in Sri Lanka as published in The Internet as a medium for free expression: A Sri Lankan legal perspective by senior lawyer J.C. Weliauma, how ISPs had pushed back against TRC directives to have blanket bans on websites, including YouTube, ostensibly because they carried pornographic content.

Looking at a story I did for Groundviews in 2015 (), I demonstrated how under the Rajapaksa regime, state authorities were deeply interested in procuring technologies that could covert infiltrate and surveil targets selected by intelligence authorities, which given the context at the time, would have invariably included journalists, civil society and human rights activities.

Towards the end of the presentation I also flagged serious concerns around the lack of data privacy laws in Sri Lanka in relation to the proposed electronic national identity card (e-NIC) project, particularly when as noted online, an entity leading the development of it, is also associated with and owned by the Ministry of Defense. Subsequent discussions during the panel suggested that this has changed, but the e-NIC project remains mired in confusion and secrecy.

Noting concerns around ‘smart cities’ and MoU’s with service providers based out of China to undergird the ICT aspects of proposed urban development in Sri Lanka, I noted there are significant privacy concerns around (though I didn’t mention it by name at the session), a world where the Internet of Things (IoT) increasingly controls and influences aspects of our lives.

I ended by referring to the Matrix, and feared many in the audience wouldn’t know what I was talking about or when I showed Neo, a central character in the trilogy, who I was referring to. The point I made, in homage to Neo’s role, was that instead of going with blind faith and acceptance towards a future where our privacy would no longer exist as we know, value and seek to protect it today, we needed as citizens or even consumers to be more aware of what we sign up to, install, use and publish on. I urged the audience to question everything, and noted that at the end of the day, digital rights and privacy was inextricably entwined with issues around citizenship and governance under a new constitution, promised to Sri Lankans later this year.

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