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How much surveillance does a country need?

Last updated on: July 18, 2013 17:15 IST

Edward SnowdenThe eternal question remains unanswered, what price security and what cost liberty, says Vikram Sood.

There has been considerable international furore over PRISM and Ed Snowden. There is debate too whether Snowden did humanity a favour by exposing the extent of surveillance conducted by the US or whether he was a traitor to his country by exposing vital secrets.

Yesterday's hero sits forlorn somewhere in Russia since June 23 with very few countries willing to grant him asylum. No state is going to encourage other whistle blowers by granting Snowden asylum even though many countries would not agree to being snooped by the Americans. It is not yet confirmed that Snowden was a Chinese spy but whatever it is, he would have caused incalculable harm to US interests. Defection usually results from slack arrangements although the reason may vary.

The US tends to overplay its hand in whatever it does, whether it is size of their hamburger steaks or the amount of nuclear weapons they feel they must have that will make them safe. PRISM is a manifestation of this heightened sense of both power and fear. The power to make themselves safe from a threat from terrorism that is far less than the threat to India.

Yet, despite spending an estimated $8 trillion since 9/11 to make the world safe, they are no where near achieving this goal. There are other factors and interests involved in the US system arising from the well known military-industry-intelligence complex that governs US policies and actions too where corporatisation of intelligence and security aspects is now American culture. But though this is only an issue of scale, the fact remains that all countries today face different kinds of threats and they need to protect themselves, their interests and their people.

The US has a unique global presence. No other country has military commands that really apportion the globe into various spheres of interest. It is the only country today that probably has more bases and soldiers outside its territory than at home. It has global economic interests ranging from control of energy, finance, currency, financial institutions and trade interests. In order to preserve its interests it needs to know -- everything and it has the means to do that. In this electronic age, electronic surveillance is inevitable.

It is also not surprising that the US spies on allies and friends and this is not the first time that this has happened. There was project ECHELON where five countries -- the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand and Canada conducted electronic surveillance globally including on its European allies and shared economic intelligence. The Soviet Union had its spies in India, kept a close watch on its Warsaw Pact allies and the Israelis spied on the US. The mock horror in Europe that this was happening, is precisely that -- mock horror while they themselves have believed in similar practices, but on a smaller scale.

There are other realities too. Intelligence collection is as old as history. Only the methods have evolved as have the threats. Four decades ago intelligence operatives still worked with secret writing and dead letter drops. The principle is the same but the techniques are now on Internet. For decades we sent human sources across our borders even to collect infrastructure details and photographs of roads, culverts, bridges and important sites.

Now we download all these from Google Earth so the signs posted outside buildings prohibiting photography are meaningless. We did aerial photography when the weather was good now we have synthetic aperture radars that see through clouds; years ago a man from the IB would sit in main post offices reading selected mail from suspect countries. Now we have all this covered by satellites and technology.

India handled the Naga and Mizo insurgencies, Sikh terrorism and all our wars much before the present technological revolution in communications and the Internet. Even so, the famous tapes of the conversation between General Pervez Musharraf while in Beijing and his Chief of Staff Lt Gen Mohammed Aziz Khan during the Kargil conflict is a classic example of electronic surveillance. It is a pity though that this was leaked to the media and the link dried up forever. There are other examples of how electronic surveillance saved the day for the intelligence agencies and more importantly, for the country. The essential point is that surveillance is unavoidable for the security of the country. The question is how much. This would also depend on the threat perceptions and availability of resources. Each country evolves security policies and practices of co-operation with other countries, on its own.

While the conventional military and WMD threats remain, the one that many more countries face today is the threat from insurgencies and terrorism. India has perhaps had the longest and the most varied threat from these insurgencies and terrorism ever since independence. It must be a world record of sorts. This threat has evolved. In an increasingly technology driven world the terrorist of the day has access to the same means of rapid communications, easy camouflage and evasion, can move funds across the globe in seconds, and cripple the state's systems. Cyber terror can only be unearthed through sophisticated extensive and expensive counter cyber terror. It is not enough to have super fast computers working on this. There is a downstream requirement of algorithm experts, people with language skills and area and subject expertise.

Terrorists have taken to the use of social media networks in a big way. The Lashkar-e-Tayiba uses Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Instagram, and Soundcloud and a host of other such systems to recruit tech-savvy youth not only in Pakistan but also in other countries. Workshops have been held in different cities of Pakistan to create what they call social movements with the help of social media activists.

There are dedicated Jamaat-ud-Dawa cyber teams operating in towns of Punjab. Talha Saeed the son of Hafiz Saeed is said to be the brain behind this scheme to use social media. They are evolving "fourth generation warfare" which is "an evolved form of insurgency that employs all available networks". The LeT's main target is India and cyber terror knows no boundaries. This is what we have to be ready for in the future and LeT would not be the only terrorist/insurgent group to use this.

Hostile states can be expected to continue to pose different threats a -- economic, political and military. India cannot be expected to ignore this. The constant battle between China and the US on cyber warfare is a worry stemming from cyber espionage.

This brings us back to the old dilemma of how much data is information and how much information is adequate intelligence. The other dilemma is how much surveillance is enough for security. The third dilemma is how much liberty is to be sacrificed for security. The eternal question remains unanswered, what price security and what cost liberty.

Image: Ed Snowden

Vikram Sood