The ministry of fear


The threat to ban on BlackBerry shows the Home Ministry’s negative attitude to technology


NOW THEY are after BlackBerry. Since “terrorists might use” BlackBerry’s email and messaging services, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) wants the master keys to their encryption. BlackBerry says there are no master keys, each user code is designed to be unique. So the MHA is threatening to ban them in India. Who will blink first?

Historically, the MHA has always been highly regressive,in the face of advance in technology. For decades, their Luddite mindsets led to the banning of walkietalkies on film locations — “terrorists might use them” — and the denial of radio taxi services in India, long after it was common across the world. Remember when they’d confiscate batteries at airports? Then they went after the telecoms who were forced, at an astronomical cost, to make every mobile tappable, and to personally verify all cell phone owners in India.

To what end? None of these policies prevented terrorists from communicating. But they have inconvenienced millions of customers, tourists, and even border states. Kashmir was kept off the mobile map for years. Even now, swathes of it can’t use mobiles because, as before, “terrorists may use them”. Damn the needs of the rest.

We are the greatest beneficiaries of a worldwide revolution in communications. The thrust of today’s technology is to enable people to reach each other in every way imaginable. Telephones, mobiles, SMSes, email, Internet telephony, voicemail, multimedia messages, online forums and the plethora of social networking sites (Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, etc.), are creating endless ways for people to communicate with each other. Can the MHA monitor and control them all?

It may be news to the Home Ministry, but most terrorists don’t use traceable communication like email
It may be news to the Home Ministry, but most terrorists don’t use traceable communication like email

It may be news to the MHA but smart terrorists don’t use traceable communication like email. They simply file their messages in their ‘drafts’ folder, easily accessed by recipients who share their password. Or they communicate on porn sites. Or on obscure forums in other languages. Or in heavily coded messages. They’re always one step ahead, their survival depends on it.

So going after BlackBerry’s privacy is not just pointless, it’s bad policy. Individuals, corporates or countries, all have justified needs for secrecy. Who wants the intelligence agencies peeping into their sexual secrets, business secrets, state secrets? Should the MHA be given the right to know everything about everybody? Threats from terrorists, however awful their crimes, should not give the State the right to override everyone’s legitimate needs for privacy. It’s a misuse of power.

One David Headley incident, and all tourist visas to India are now tarred on arrival. Passports are stamped “Not eligible to return to India for two months”. While bad guys always find a way in, with or without visas(remember 26/11?), frequent travellers lament the dimming allure of ‘Incredible India’. And At the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) in Mumbai, those wanting a renewal of their business visas are told by the FRRO to fly to Delhi for ministry clearance. Easy, huh? It’s a frog-in-the-well attitude that suspects every foreigner, while we’ve exported 25 million of our own.

But let’s be fair. P Chidambaram, once a great finance minister, is performing admirably in a difficult “job”, as he calls it, as the home minister. But it’s also his job to change the MHA’s outdated mindset, and drag them kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Going after BlackBerry’s 41 million customers worldwide (1 million in India alone) will seriously inconvenience a huge number of people involved in India’s growth story. And it won’t stop terrorists from communicating. We live in dangerous times and we’re rooting for the good guys. But the MHA shouldn’t expect the rest of the world to do their job for them. The tail can’t wag the dog. (By the way, I don’t own or use a BlackBerry).

Photo: Tumpa Mandal
Illustration: Anand Naorem


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