Private? uh uh

A couple of mornings ago, I read in a local newspaper that the police somewhere had caught a robber who stole a gold chain off a little girl’s neck. Unfortunately, the intrepid fellow had apparently swallowed the chain, thus neatly concealing all evidence. Not to be left clueless, the police ordered an X-ray examination of his abdomen, and the evidence was unearthed in plain black and white. And in other colours, to be revealed when the forcibly administered laxatives got to work.

I searched for the news item online, so as to post it here. I didn’t find it, but a strikingly similar theft apparently happened in Mexico two months ago. Is this copy-catting or what? According to a mail I got recently, ‘pagerism’ is a journalist using someone else’s beeper, but I suspect this isn’t quite as innocent.

Anyway, this isn’t really about missing evidential chains, but about the kind of thinking that pervades the thinking of some people in authority, that the badge of office confers the inalienable right to invade other people’s space, including subjecting them forcibly to potentially cancer causing radiation for non-medical reasons.

Earlier this month (July 2008, in case you were wondering), an interesting group of people visited Mumbai, from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Simon Davies is the Director-General of Privacy International, and Gus Hosein, a Senior Fellow. They had come to India during a tour of Asia, studying attitudes and practices regarding the protection of privacy as a basic human right. A third member of the team, Dave Banisar, had gone directly to Delhi for engagements with other people.

The picture here, taken by my friend Shahzad Ahmed, shows the three of them explaining how easy it is for officialdom to want to know about us, more than we might care to want to reveal.

Big Brothers are Watching You

Privacy, in India, is (to generalise in a very broad way) hardly important at many levels. We accept nosiness from family members, extended family members, people visiting from distant places who once met some remotely connected extended family member, and the neighbour’s dog, without batting an eyelid. However, when it comes to joining the mainstream economy, the consequences of breach of privacy can be ruinous.

Hopefully, some people will come together on a common platform in the near future to raise awareness in India about the disasters in store for organisations that do not take the privacy of their stakeholders seriously. Some of the possible avenues for moving forward include:
– Reaching out to the arts, etc, as a means of awakening public consciousness.
– Working with industry to afford high-grade protections rather than shortcuts
– Using new media to educate banks etc who share personal information in their custody with other companies
– Developing a responsible encryption policy in India
– and of course, criminal investigative interrogations

This recent article lays out the current Indian scenario from the legal point of view.

However, it is not simply invasions of privacy that can happen breathtakingly often, when custodians of other people’s personal information are careless.

We also need to be conscious of (far too lightly) countenancing ‘authorities’ to deliberately tamper with our minds and bodies. As much as accidents happening, such as laptops getting lost, or data CDs going missing in the mail, or government departments placing highly confidential taxpayer information on the net unprotected by genuine security, but far more insidious, is the idea of someone believing implicitly that the ends justify the means. Worse, when that ‘someone’ is an official of the government.

Recently, we have been subjected to witnessing the most appalling invasion of privacy – parents of a murdered young teenager, who had to first hear the local police chief publicly cast aspersions on her morality, then suffer the father being held in custody for 50 days before the court granted bail. Under the law, it could have been 90 days, but the investigative agency (CBI) who had been handed the case, deposed in court that there wasn’t a shred of evidence against him.

What shocked people was the way many people concerned with the case, police included, freely fed the hungry media with tidbits, mostly hearsay. I haven’t given any links, perhaps the Loyal Reader may have noticed, because the coverage was shameful, shamelessly so.

The culprit may be identified now, but without anything other than circumstantial evidence, not even a confession. The circumstantial evidence was itself unearthed, but not through diligent police work, rather by forcibly subjecting two men to interrogation under drugs. In fact, such interrogations are actually (and routinely) sanctioned by judicial authority, a magistrate’s order.

While stoutly defended by the doctors involved, from the Forensic Science Laboratory, Bangalore (which is apparently more popular than the other FSL, in Gandhinagar), a little digging reveals that in fact the use of sodium pentothal (or sodium thiopental, its ‘correct’ chemical nomenclature) is exceedingly unreliable, and calls for subjective judgment to separate genuine from false memories.

Like any chemical, it has side effects, that include death: it is one of the components of the drug dose administered to carry out the death penalty in 37 US states. Immediate reactions include hypotension, apnea and airway obstructions: to one degree or another, my own body exhibits symptoms of all three of these, which is an unlovely thought, reminding me of the protagonist in Jerome K Jerome’s classic “Three Men in a Boat”. Equally frightening, the narcotic state may lead the person to actually ‘believe’ ie false memories can be implanted, perhaps permanently.

Perhaps the police need to go back to school – but that is only part of the answer, in our complex land. The shortage of manpower is a huge problem, made worse, paradoxically, by the booming economy. Well-qualified people tend to gravitate to well-compensated jobs, and the police is like any other civil service, its major cachet supposedly respect, and not cash.

In addition, even if, by some miracle, the manpower crunch could be sorted out overnight, the lack of properly equipped forensic laboratories and forensic procedures will not help police solve crimes through professional means. They may continue outsourcing their basic investigative responsibilities to doctors, with little field experience or knowledge of the science of crime detection per se. FSL Bangalore actually carries out its ‘narco-analysis’ (the narco part is undoubtedly correct, the drug is classed as a barbiturate, but not so much the analysis) at Victoria Hospital in the same city, which speaks volumes about its own capabilities.

However, no matter what the ideal solution will be, it is imperative that the ordinary citizen not sit by, while others are being drugged against their will. In one case, the Gandhinagar FSL actually refused to carry out such a narco-analysis test, on the grounds the accused had not signed the ‘consent form’. Other people are not so lucky, as the consent form can be held to be superseded by the judicial order. The very fact that such tests continue, even when the impugned case pends in the Supreme Court (heading towards 2 years now), is another inexplicable application of justice in India.

Anyway, if you have got this far, watch this space, because I shall continue to cover important aspects of privacy protection, in the general march towards enabling communications for all.

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