Shashi Tharoor was left high and dry at the last minute, last week. As head of the parliamentary standing committee on information and technology, the Congress MP tried to summon his colleagues from across the treasury benches over the unfolding Pegasus spyware story, hoping to discuss questions of data breaches and privacy. He was only doing his duty and getting his peers to do the job they have been elected to do, which is also to deliberate on law and policy.
Tharoor confessed that while the issue was explosive, posing all sorts of dangers to democracy, the Pegasus story was not attracting the attention it deserved, especially amongst India’s voting public. Tharoor put it down to not being a “bread and butter” issue. Except that it is so. Data is increasingly a public good. Whether it concerns caste or income, data is essential now to democracy, and you don’t have to be Prashant Kishor to know that.
Data is admittedly an issue that remains elusive to public sympathy. Though ever-present, the fiendishly abstract nature of the problem of data makes it hard to capture, let alone capable of mobilising any public sentiment. In all likelihood, however, this apathy will soon be credited to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Teflon capacity to weather political storms.
Internationally, though, the Pegasus spyware expose has certainly attracted only the wrong kind of attention for India with The Economist dubbing it a “seven-headed scandal” for India’s “troubled democracy”.
Data: information or political news?
The Pegasus story exposes the way data is endangering global democracy. India is in fine company of Saudi Arabia and Hungary, among others, for deploying the Israeli government-mandated cutting-edge spyware, against its own citizens. But that the 1,000-odd hacked accounts were a roll call of the Modi government’s critics, including Rahul Gandhi and even the otherwise unpowerful academic-critics of the government, is what has made it a political scandal.
So how is it that such a significant political story, in ways more than one, is meeting with tangible public apathy, even as the Modi government is predictably and actively shutting it down?
At the most obvious and superficial level, in the absence of a WikiLeaks-style expose, the Pegasus story offers no details of conversations, only a list of those who have been hacked into. Moreover, again, unlike WikiLeaks, there is no whistle-blower who has come forward. One of the upshots of a digitised world has been that news, without a strong personal element of feelings or narrative element, holds little sway in the new attention economy marked by information overload. This, according to the author William Davies, has led to the dominance of feelings over expertise or the reign of ‘Nervous States’, also the title of his excellent book.
Data is thus dry stuff. Boring. The encrypted conversations that have been hacked by the spyware are nothing but data. In the world we are in, data is what we as individuals possess and from our DNA or any number of ‘likes’ in an app, to voting behaviour. Much like our individual rights such as freedom, data too is an individual possession. It is everywhere and the means of much of our current existence. From WhatsApp to Facebook or from Aadhaar to any swipe of a bank card, the individual today is now a bunch of manipulable and profitable algorithms.
Each individual thus offers multiple data set points — for targeted advertising and surveillance that, in turn, becomes part of a larger algorithm that can then be used by an election expert or a clothing company. This ‘coup from the top’ has its own name of ‘surveillance capitalism’ a big word to convey the everyday and corrosive stripping of individual rights through data mining.
Your individual data is thus someone’s bread and butter! And it is ginormous bread and butter. More like high-end French cakes and pastries with intricate, enticing and rich icing. Just ask Mark Zuckerberg. And if it is political data or information, like that of those hacked by Pegasus, then it is invaluable.
In Delhi’s policy-wonk circles, the value of data has been well-known and for some time. Over the last five years, I often, like others, heard the new cliché of our times, that ‘data is the new oil’. Indeed, it is the prime commodity of the 4th industrial revolution, or our current times, et cetera. Oil is very last century, indeed.
Data and democracy
In its earliest days, data and data-enabled communications, such as Facebook and WhatsApp, were seen as democracy’s greatest enablers. Remember the Arab Spring? Data communications were indeed ‘freeing’ even those places which were remarkably unfree. This was ten years ago.
Not long after the Arab Spring, and at the height of the Cambridge Analytica scandal that saw social media data being manipulated by a private company in a high-stakes election in the world’s most powerful and free democracy, another buzzword emerged and was hard to miss in policy talk, especially in India. That word was ‘data sovereignty‘.
The fact that on the one hand, it is WhatsApp and on the other, a spyware named Pegasus that can only be bought by governments, exposes the deep peril democracy is in this data age. Between these two behemoths of Silicon Valley and the Surveillance-State is the individual citizen, the political actor or leader who is squeezed out. In fact, the individual is set up to lose and be used up in this battle between private data owners and State data hackers.
‘Data sovereignty’ was meant to be the answer to Silicon-valley singularities who were guzzling Indian data, and for eye-watering sums. ‘The Sate’ or political or sovereign order, as the buzzword aimed to convey, had to restore power to itself and rein in the data giants. Except that it has proven to be impossible. Many a parliamentary standing committee, or related bodies, in other countries too have failed to get a decent answer from any major data conglomerate, let alone reining them in or regulating them. India is no exception.
If data mining companies have become supra-sovereign, then our governments, entrusted to hold our interest, have turned against their own citizens in using digital surveillance against political opponents. In the face of its weakened authority, surveillance by the State is a way to assert its authority. Tellingly, the legal weapon of choice against political opponents today is ‘sedition’ — a statute also based on ideas of loyalty to sovereign authority.
Surveillance is the context and condition of democracy in India today. Sedition its prime punishment. As such, any cries to ‘privacy’ against data breaches will not cut any ice as that sounds not only precious or elitist but simply off the mark. Only because the ‘individual’ who may possess any privacy has already been split apart and as part of multiple data sets, in most instances, by his or her own volition through a click or a swipe and owned by an offshore company. The individual, even if unwatched, is now entirely vulnerable.
Pegasus is thus not about the list of 1,000 names hacked. To be sure, they are safely confirmed as the ace list of the most bothersome to the most powerful. Rather, Pegasus has highlighted the fundamental reshaping and redrawing of sovereignty. This is especially salient as it is another sovereign State and a company that have conducted political surveillance of Indian citizens. Through the Pegasus story, the Surveillance State has exposed its own anxiety and nervousness but above all, has weakened its own sovereign power. This cannot be boring, nor a cause for apathy. The Economist is wrong, India’s democracy is not troubled. In fact, it is every Indian’s sovereignty and thus, India’s sovereignty, that looks entirely exposed.
The writer teaches modern Indian history and global political thought at the University of Cambridge, twitter @shrutikapila. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)