The Hindu, By V. Sridha
Computer security expert , Jacob Appelbaum at a talk in TERI complex in Bangalore on Tuesday. Photo : K . Bhagya Prakash
The establishment of a centralised database of Indian citizens such as the Unique Identification (UID) project will result in the loss of freedoms on a “societal scale,” according to Jacob Appelbaum, a staunch supporter of the WikiLeaks project.
Addressing a small gathering of hacking enthusiasts here late on Tuesday, Mr. Appelbaum, an associate of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, said he was “horrified” by the establishment in India of the Central Monitoring System (CMS), which was being used to gather a diverse range of analogue and digital information, including telephone records, text messages and Internet traffic. “We live in the golden age of surveillance,” said Mr. Appelbaum, a U.S. citizen who has been detained by U.S. law-enforcement agencies on at least a dozen occasions.
“The problem with the Unique Identification (UID) system or the CMS is not that it will not be perfect,” but the fact that it would result in people being forced to “behave differently” because they would be under surveillance or have to live in fear of it. “This amounts to a loss of freedom,” he argued. “To watch is to control, and surveillance is a kind of control.”
Warning of the possibilities of data theft, Mr. Appelbaum said that though “fingerprint lifting may appear far-fetched now,” techniques for enabling “transferable fingerprints” were being discussed in the public realm. Iris scans, he told The Hindu, were also “far from being foolproof.”
“These are things that deserve resistance, not protest, because protest happens when you do not go along with something,” he said. “Resistance, on the other hand, happens when you stop others from going along.” “I also think we need to build alternatives to these systems.”
Though he conceded that there might be a need for citizen identification systems in society, he argued that centralising them posed grave dangers to the freedom of citizens. “When we centralise the collection of information, we actually centralise the place that an attacker would like to attack to gain control of society,” Mr. Appelbaum said.
The “intentions” of those in authority do not matter because “general purpose information systems” were difficult to protect. “We can try, but there is a threshold of attack, where someone will probably win.” “If there are valid concerns of national security, espionage or terrorism, does it make sense to make a centralised system with all the records of usage of phones, Internet browsing, emails, fingerprints?” “Doing this may result in losses on a societal scale,” he said.
Mr. Appelbaum, co-author, with Mr. Assange, of Cypherpunks: Freedom and the future of the Internet, said “dragnet surveillance” systems amounted to “a tyranny of sorts.”
Example from Nazi Germany
Arguing against the notion that technology is benign, Mr. Appelbaum recalled the use of punching card technologies deployed by the Nazi regime in Germany to target Jews, Communists and others social groups. The machines enabled the regime to determine how many Jews or Communists lived in a particular residential block, he said. “We can understand from the past what possibilities exist in the future for surveillance,” he said. “In fact, when people suggest that surveillance causes no harm, they are denying history.”
He recalled the “Athens Incident” of 2004, when the telephone switches leading to the Prime Minister and a number of Greek parliamentarians were subjected to wiretapping with “interception systems.” He pointed out that telephone-switching standards established in the U.S. were mimicked all over the world. “There is a trickledown effect in all this. So, Greece gets them [interception systems] just the same way as Iran gets them, and just about the way the U.S. has them,” Mr. Appelbaum said.
“The theory goes that the FBI [the Federal Bureau of Investigation], which is legitimate, goes to a court and never abuses its authority, and so everything is fine.” But the “backdoors” built into these switches made them vulnerable to anyone who might have access to the switch through a computer network.
“In theory, the Internet allows us to be free, but the fact that almost by default, the Internet is not secure implies a breakdown of this freedom,” Mr. Appelbaum said. “This results in a strange situation: people have the freedom to communicate and say what they want, but does the surveillance actually allow them to be free?”
An expert hacker, Mr. Appelbaum said: “Technology is quite boring, when compared with the richness of societies.” Urging the audience to read his book, he said: “You have my blessings to download it from Pirate Bay.”