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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Avoid mindless ban on technology

The morbid threat of terrorism has paranoid governments banning several ‘dual-use’ technologies and treading on citizens’ rights under the pretext of protecting them.
artical Picture
Despite the growing tendency to see the world as black or white — the with-me-oragainst-me syndrome, echoed by an important Indian cal leader too — most people do recognise the many sides to an issue: not just shades of grey but, indeed, a spectrum of colours. One area where this has long been manifest is technology. Whether the technology is good or bad, evil or a godsend, depends on context, perspective and use. A knife can kill, and the surgeon’s knife can save a life. Ultimately, it is not the technology or the weapon that takes lives, but the finger that pulls the trigger, the mind that conceives the crime; as the Unesco Charter states, ‘wars begin in the minds of men’. 
    
It may be well to remember this as the country — and the world — faces new challenges. For the first time in the history of the modern nation-state, it is seriously threatened not by another nation-state but by small organised groups. Thanks to technology, a band of highlymotivated individuals can hold a powerful nation to ransom or cause mayhem on an unprecedented scale. The world saw this — literally, thanks to real-time TV coverage — on September 11, 2001, in the US and, in a different way, on November 26, 2008, in Mumbai. In the latter case, destruction entailed the use of standard weapons: guns and explosives. In the former instance, the weapon was a civilian aircraft. 
    
Explosives have long been used to clear obstacles while building roads or for other construction-related purposes. As such, the technology itself can hardly be faulted for how it is used. The argument in the case of civil aircraft is even more obvious. Around the world, means of transport — trucks, cars, motorcycles and, in India, even bicycles — have been used as carriers of explosives, to create chaos and cause destruction. 
    
No sane person has yet suggested a ban on aeroplanes, motorcycles, cars or bicycles, but, in a shoot-the-messenger reaction, mobile phones were long banned in parts of the country. There is also a general ban on the use of satellite phones across the country. Of course, it is well known that mobile phones are sometimes used to trigger an explosion, and that people — including terrorists — talk to each other by satellite phones. 
    
Do we, then, consider mobile telephony a dangerous dual-use technology and impose curbs on its use? The Commonwealth Games in Delhi are likely to face security threats — should all mobile phone connections be cut off in the city during those two weeks? 
    
In the telecom sphere itself, there is now much controversy regarding email services like Blackberry and about telecom equipment itself. There are proposals to impose conditions regarding imported equipment and software that are so onerous that few manufacturers will agree to them — unless they intend to flout them through some clever subterfuge. 
    
The aim, apparently, was to keep out Chinese equipment — without an explicit ban — for reasons of security (possibly instigated by rival equipment suppliers from other countries who are now, doubtless, ruing being hoist with their own petard!). Ironically, the only ones who may willingly agree to all the conditions are the Chinese vendors. 
    
Meanwhile, there are technologies that track eye movement and other body parameters; with these inputs and appropriate software, psychologists are able to detect nervousness. It is proposed to use this to identify potential terrorists by putting cameras and sensors at the back of every aircraft seat to monitor each passenger. 
    
New technologies will soon monitor thought through electroencephalograms or other means. It will not be long before we have, as in science-fiction films, mind cops who arrest people before they commit a crime. Of course, these systems will not be perfect, but — it will be argued — it is better to have 10 innocents in jail than one criminal free to cause mayhem. 
    
It was probably on similar considerations that, according to media reports, one country wanted to ban the export of pencils to Iraq some years ago. Pencils contain graphite that happens to be the material used as moderator in nuclear reactors. A case of dual-use materials, or an instance of fearing that — quite literally — the pen (pencil) may be mightier than the sword! 
    
In a world of growing terrorism, many of the concerns are understandable. Quite rightly, few want to take chances, and officials least of all. Any possible security hazard — even a farfetched one — results in some kind of ban, and its revocation is a slow process. A case in point is the ban on metal cutlery on flights, imposed in the US at the height of its security paranoia. Most countries dutifully followed suit, and it was months before silverware finally reappeared. Of course, metal cutlery is more prone to dual use than pencils. 
    
The line between the state’s responsibility for public safety and the individual’s right to privacy is not only getting fuzzy, but is being redrawn. The list of technologies that are sought to be regulated and controlled — for public safety — is growing. Few would argue against controls on guns — even in the US, the ‘gun lobby’ is slowly losing dominance — but should the concept of dangerous ‘weapons’ extend to mobile telephones? Can technologies be controlled? Is it all right for government to tap into any telephone conversation and monitor all internet traffic? Will laws permitting preventive detention be revived to arrest people on the basis of psychological indicators that could be construed as pointing towards criminal intent? 
    
The combination of an adverse security environment and new technologies throw up these and a host of difficult questions. There is too little discussion on these, and it seems that decisions are being driven by a few forceful individuals who see the issue as black and white. It is time that responsible corporate bodies and civil society organisations initiated an informed discussion on this. Our security is, doubtless, at stake — but so is our way of life, our freedom.

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