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.

Fast Company’s World Changing Ideas 2017: Finalist

‘Corridors of Power’, a path-breaking project marrying constitutional reform and theory with architecture, is a finalist in Fast Company’s World Changing Ideas 2017 awards, under the Urban Design category.

As noted online, “Fast Company sifted through more than 1,000 truly impressive entries to find the ones our panel of judges thought were the best combination of creative problem solving and potential to change our world for the better. [Fast Company] crowned 12 winners–along with 192 finalists.”

Conceived of and curated by me, in close collaboration with leading constitutional theorist Asanga Welikala and renowned architect Channa Daswatte, ‘Corridors of Power’ through architectural drawings and models, interrogates Sri Lanka’s constitutional evolution since 1972.

The exhibition depicts Sri Lanka’s tryst with constitutional reform and essentially the tension between centre and periphery. The exhibits include large format drawings, 3D flyovers, sketches and models reflecting the power dynamics enshrined in the the 1972 and 1978 constitutions, as well as the 13th, 18th and 19th Amendments.

The exhibition premiered late 2015, was taken around Sri Lanka in 2016 and will also be taken to key cities over the course of 2017. To our knowledge, nothing along these lines has ever been attempted or created before.

More details here. Content from the exhibition is also archived here.

A dedicated website for the project will be launched in April.

Identifying & combatting Fake News: A primer

I was recently asked to put together a presentation on the fake news phenomenon for discussions with leading journalists and media institutions in a developing country, with extremely poor media literacy but strong growth around social media use, on how to both identify misleading content and also stem its flow, reach and influence.


In addition to Slideshare (embedded above), a Google Drive folder has the presentation as an Apple Keynote (which I used to create the slideshow), Microsoft PowerPoint and PDF. Obviously, the PDF will not show the videos that are embedded into the presentation, which in order to understand the fake news phenomenon, are important to watch. Access the material here.

I’ve made this presentation made for widescreen (16:9 aspect ratio) laptops and HD projection, but will obviously scale down to lower end laptops (4:3 aspect ratio) and projectors. The presentation of fake news covers, inter alia,

  • The definition of Fake News
  • President Barack Obama’s warning around Fake News
  • How Fake News has become an industry and a profile of one of its key producers
  • Fake News in Afghanistan over Facebook
  • The reason why Fake News spreads so much and goes viral over social media
  • What technology and social media companies are doing to combat Fake News
  • What media organizations are doing to combat Fake News
  • What governments and multi-national entities are doing to combat Fake News
  • The future of Fake News, including voice and video manipulation in real time
  • The role of media literacy in combatting Fake News
  • Simple tips for spotting Fake News and checking the veracity of content consumed over the web and social media
  • Endeavours from around the world anchored to counter-speech and combatting the spread of rumours
  • New technology platforms to combat the spread of rumours
  • The role and responsibility of consumers in addressing Fake News

The presentation has embedded videos, all of which are under 4-5 minutes and are integral to the discussion around Fake News. They play locally, and in fact, the whole presentation can be conducted without any connectivity whatsoever.

While my presentation covers most of the current discussions and trends around fake news, it doesn’t go into media literacy or media literacy training too much, which is a different thrust entirely.

This presentation follows work around identifying and combatting fake news for a number of years, in Sri LankaMyanmar and elsewhere, including primary research on the spread of hate speech online and over Facebook in the Sinhala language. As the ICT4Peace Foundation also notes, it is a problem that resonates more deeply and broadly than just countries in the West,

Hope this presentation is useful in any lectures or workshops on a phenomenon that will only get more sophisticated and pernicious in the years to come.

Corridors of Power: Constitutional Power and Architecture

Delivered a short presentation today to the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom office in Colombo on ‘Corridors of Power’, an exhibition I curated with Channa Daswatta and Asanga Welikala that explores Sri Lanka’s constitutional evolution through architecture.

The exhibition was first shown late 2015, and in 2016, was again shown in Colombo, in addition to Jaffna, Kandy, Batticaloa and Galle. The presentation, made for those visiting Sri Lanka from FNST’s headquarters in Berlin, Germany, gave an overview of the exhibition, the amazing responses to it and around constitutional reform writ large from outside of Colombo (covered here) as well as plans next year to build on it, including a new website, taking it to more places around Sri Lanka and also developing the original idea into a more democratic, web based model that can result in citizen-driven models around perceptions of constitutional rule that can be scaled even to the level of public parks.

Digital transformation and the role of civil society in Sri Lanka


The Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit Regional office South Asia organized a regional seminar on “Promoting Liberty Digitally” in Sri Lanka from 15th to 17th October 2016. I was asked to speak on “Digital transformation and the role of Civil Society in Sri Lanka” and to be present at a group discussion on “Civil rights and the Internet”.

My presentation covered how technology in general, and social media in particular, had been leveraged by civil society around a range of issues related to elections, democracy, rights and governance in Sri Lanka. Looking at Facebook statistics in Sri Lanka, and also CPA’s own social polling data around Consumption and Perceptions of Mainstream and Social Media in the Western Province, I noted how designing and developing for mobiles first was essential if CSOs and NGOs wanted to engage with digital natives, who in Sri Lanka are also the most politically active and fall within the 18 – 34 demographic / 1st, 2nd or at most, 3rd time voters.

Noting the results of CPA’s social polling, I flagged that,

  • Not everyone needs to be connected to web to be influenced by it.
  • The influence of content on social media in particular, and online content in general, extends to groups well beyond those who are directly connected to, and participating in these online networks.
  • This also puts to rest the often quoted myth that since Internet penetration is relatively low in the country, content shared online has little to no footprint in the larger public consciousness.

I also flagged key changes, as I saw them, brought about by the ever increasing adaptation and adoption of technology by civil society (and indeed, government),

  • Ubiquity of two way communications
  • Addressable peoples, even those who IDPs or refugees
  • Disintermediated models vs. traditional media model
  • People as producers
  • Low resolution, hyperlocal helps focus and granularity
  • Aggregation of low resolution helps macro analysis and strategy

I then looked at specific apps and technologies and how they had been used in Sri Lanka (e.g. Abdul Halik-Azziz on Instagram, or Groundviews on WhatsApp).

I then looked at how technology helped remember the inconvenient, harking back to my more detailed presentation on this topic at Colomboscope 2016 (‘Remembering is Resisting‘).

Groundviews has pioneered long-form and responsive web based storytelling on platforms like Adobe Spark, Atavist and Shorthand – I flagged these as important to embrace in light of the fact that so many consumed content over mobiles and smartphones.

Flagging the path-breaking Change Sri Lanka campaign leading up to the General Election in 2015, I also noted how infographics, the web and mainstream media were leveraged to capture opinion from a broad section of the public in English, Sinhala and Tamil.

I also flagged drone journalism, immersive VR content (360 degree videos for use with the likes of Google Cardboard) and the many aspects of Facebook, ranging from Notes to Facebook Live video, as ways to communicate and engage with more effectively target audiences.

Finally I flagged some questions around identity, safety, security, information overload and ‘slacktivism’ – noting that increasing digital advocacy and activism also meant opening oneself, and institutions, to greater more pervasive surveillance, especially in South Asia which remains colored by a democratic deficit.


I also said that the biggest challenge facing the greater adoption and adaptation of technology for advocacy was not a paucity of apps, platforms, tools or services, but a crisis of imagination in civil society itself – noting that civil society is usually unable and unwilling to think outside the box.

Presentation at Shape South Asia 2016 on ‘Corridors of Power’


I was invited by the WEF GlobalShapers Colombo Hub (see Facebook page here) to showcase the ‘Corridors of Power‘ exhibition again and also to speak on it.

The exhibition, first held in 2015 at the JDA Perera Gallery, was unlike any other project combining design, architecture and constitutional theory. It occupied a very large floor space, which wasn’t available at the GlobalShaper’s venue this year. I had to then compress the entire floor plan and as much as I could of the background into two high-definition, which ran on a loop on very large LCD screens. The four models representing the ’72 and ’78 constitution as well as the 13th and 18th Amendments, were displayed at the venue.


Interrogating constitutional power (between centre and periphery) through architecture, as a design venture that sought to engage citizens to think more about how they are ruled, has never once been attempted before, anywhere in the world. The project brought together one of the country’s foremost architects, one of its leading constitutional theorists and I in a three way, over year long conversation culminating in the exhibition, anchored to architectural principles, design, aesthetics and constitutional theory.

‘Corridors of Power’ interrogates 40 years of Sri Lanka’s constitutional evolution, through architecture. What is a constitution? What place and relevance, if any, does it have in the popular imagination? Do citizens really care about an abstract document most would never have seen or read, when more pressing existential concerns continue to bedevil their lives and livelihoods, even post-war?

Led by the input of Asanga Welikala and in collaboration with Channa Daswatta, ‘Corridors of Power’ through architectural drawings and models interrogates Sri Lanka’s constitutional evolution since 1972. The physical exhibition, held first in late 2015, critiqued Sri Lanka’s tryst with constitutional reform and essentially the tension between centre and periphery. The original exhibition output included large format drawings, 3D flyovers, sketches, and models reflecting power dynamics enshrined in the the 1972 and 1978 constitutions, as well as the 13th, 18th and 19th Amendments.

The exhibition clearly demonstrates the futility of even more amendments to a constitution that since conception 1978 was deeply flawed. It highlights the outgrowth of authoritarianism, and the illusion of stability. It gives life to the phrase, “the centre cannot hold”. Through errors thrown up by the architectural programme Autodesk Revit, significant flaws of our present constitution are clearly flagged. The models will collapse over time. The drawings are increasingly grotesque.

The architectural output makes abundantly clear the failure of our constitutional vision.

All this, we countenanced. All this, we could have opposed. All this, we voted in, defended or were silent about.

‘Corridors of power’, as with all my exhibitions previously, is an invitation to reflect on what we have been hostage to in the past in order to imagine a more just, inclusive, open future. Spaces to meet, reflect and react need expansion. The checks and balances of power need firmer foundations. Centripetal tendencies in design must be eschewed in favour of centrifugal development. We need open spaces instead of closed sites, grass to walk and play on instead of just to admire. Easy access to key locations. Light, more than shadow and shade too, where needed.

In sum, we need to be the architects of the change we want to see. It is the essence of citizenship. It is what gives life to a constitution worth having. Worth knowing.

Worth defending.

Drone Journalism in Sri Lanka


Over August and September this year, I conducted Sri Lanka’s first workshops on the ethical, legal use of drones or UAVs in journalism. The workshop was heavily anchored to the ethics around the use of drones, the detailed regulations by the Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka (CAASL) around UAVs flights, a practical, hands-on segment where all participants got to fly a DJI Phantom IV drone and finally, a discussion around imagery processing, quality and ethics, around content captured during flight.

A one-page description of the workshop can be downloaded here.

As a result of these workshops, I was also able to engage the Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka (CAASL) in on-going conversations around regulating the use of drones in Sri Lanka particularly for non-commercial use, as well as making it easier for journalists and farmers to register more easily with the CAASL. More on this later.

Released in February 2016, CAASL’s second version of regulations covering the flight of drones and UAVs in Sri Lanka is available online, though not easily discoverable even on the CAASL site. It is comprehensive, well-drafted and isn’t overly restrictive in comparison to regulations from the US, UK and Australia for example. Conversations with the CAASL, still on-going, have been anchored to making these regulations available in Sinhala and Tamil, in a more accessible, reader and user-friendly formats, through short-form video and available at the point of sale in Sri Lanka. At the time of writing, I have also been informed that a new version of the regulations is in the works, and will be released to the public domain soon.

Photo by Maatram, via

The first drone journalism workshop was supported by Internews, and the result of conversations with renowned journalist Amantha Perera, who also wrote about the workshop. There were around 20 participants, from the pathbreaking One Sri Lanka Journalism Fellowship programme as well as from mainstream media.


The first workshop was also supported by Sam de Silva from Internews, who also went on to wrote about it. As he noted,

Kaushalye, a reporter for the Sinhala language newspaper Lankadeepa in Sri Lanka, had planned to purchase a drone to photograph weddings and other events. He had never heard about using drones for journalism until he attended a workshop in Mount Lavinia. Kaushalye’s interest was kindled – he said he found the rules and regulations and ethics components especially useful.

Some media outlets in Sri Lanka have already started using drones (also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or UAVs) to provide aerial footage for their stories but there was no awareness or training for journalists about the regulations governing the flying of such craft, the ethics involved and the safety and security checks that need to be followed.

Some photos from the workshop, taken by Sam.

Given the incredible interest around the first workshop, I organized a second in September, supported by the ICT4Peace Foundation. As noted by me in the foreword to The Use of Unmanned Unarmed Aerial Vehicles for Peacekeeping, authored by Helena Puig Larrauri and Patrick Meier and published by the ICT4Peace Foundation,

For the best of intentions, UUAVs can lead to the worst of outcomes if their use isn’t carefully contextualized, and their deployment plus operation sensitively managed. With the democratization of UUAVs, and add-on technologies, serious challenges like the relatively easy weaponisation of off-the-shelf UUAVs will grow, as well as the use of UUAVs by non-state actors and certain arms of government for surveillance, and of course, continuing military operations.

The Foundation’s interest in promoting the ethical, rights based use of drones in humanitarian and peacekeeping domains merged with my interest in support the use of UAVs in Sri Lanka for journalism. The second workshop was held for journalists, activists, those from civic media, and others using drones for commercial operations including aerial photography.

Importantly, the CAASL sent a representative to act as an observer in the second workshop, and in a short speech delivered mid-way, reiterated the CAASL’s interest in supporting the ethical use of drones in journalism, as well as efforts to promote the awareness of existing regulations. Editor of Maatram and journalist Selvaraja Rajasegar has some photos from the workshop.


The other advantage of the second workshop was that permission was sought and received from the Warden of S. Thomas’ College, adjacent to the workshop venue, to have the hands-on lessons on the cricket grounds in the school, allowing for easier Line of Sight (LOS) flying.

That’s a short video from footage shot during the flights when the participants took the controls, including a segment where I demonstrate the Phantom IV’s (slightly creepy) active tracking mode.

The second workshop also included developments in Sri Lanka since the first was held, most notably the proposed use around and advertisements for drones in agriculture, and amongst farmers in the country.


There is still a long way to go. As I was typing in this blogpost, a callous example of how not to use a drone for journalism surfaced from Colombo.

As award-winning journalist Dharisha Bastians noted (she also participated in the 2nd workshop),

Furthermore, the Sunday Times reported that,

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is urging operators of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) including drones, to register with the CAA, as the use of these instruments are fast gaining popularity in the country. CAA Director General (DG), H.M.C. Nimalsiri said, only around 50 UAV s are registered with them to date, while many more are believed to be in operation.

Only problem is that the CAASL to date has no way the public can register their drones. It is also unclear to what extent local authorities including for example the Police, Civil Defense Force and Army, especially in the North and East, are aware of the CAASL regulations.

But the interest from the CAASL in engaging with media, civic minded citizens around drone flights, the agrarian sector and other commercial operators is very positive. Given an enduring interest in the issues covered in the workshop, I intend to conduct more in the future.