Smartphones are surveillance tools and Bollywood is now discovering it | OPINION – India Today


In the days following his flight to Hong Kong, when NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden met lawyers, the first thing that he asked them to do was to switch off their phones and put them inside the refrigerator in his hotel room. When this information was shared later in a news report, people got curious and wondered why Snowden would do that. There were two theories: one, he did it so that the NSA, which is considered the top agency for electronic surveillance, could not eavesdrop on his conversation using the microphones in the devices lawyers were carrying. And two, he probably asked the lawyers to put the phones in a fridge to isolate them from radio waves. The fridge was an impromptu, albeit imperfect, Faraday Cage.

Whatever the reasons, one important point became clear: smartphones, even when switched off, are perfect surveillance tools.

Now, Snowden’s case is extreme. He feared surveillance because he was a target. His case was also the one where the target — Snowden — was extremely tech-savvy. What we are discovering in Mumbai, where chats and personal details of some Bollywood stars are leaking left, right and centre, and where the entire industry is now running helter-skelter to get their phones wiped clean, is that smartphones enable surveillance even when no one is targeting you. In fact, they are the perfect surveillance tools and most people don’t even realise it.

READ | When Edward Snowden gets a new phone, to protect his privacy this is what he does

Surveillance in the classical sense is a game sleuths play. They identify a target, then they plant bugs and tools, and then follow the target around.

But surveillance in 2021 is different. That classic sleuth game is no longer needed. That is because we all carry a phone that is always monitoring us and recording everything we do. Like that Police song from 1983 goes:

Every breath you take
And every move you make
Every bond you break
Every step you take
I’ll be watching you
Every single day
And every word you say
Every game you play
Every night you stay
I’ll be watching you

This is no longer a song by The Police. This is your smartphone singing. It is literally tracking each step. And each breath too, when you have paired your phone with a fitness band or smartwatch.

The reason why we don’t realise this is because the surveillance is not done by the governments. Instead, it is done by tech companies. They do it because they are interested in your data, each piece of data. They collect everything, and they store so many copies of this data that it is nearly impossible to delete it. For long, it flew under the radar of the governments, or maybe it remained untouched because society paid some respect to concepts like privacy and digital rights. In a world where the old norms are withering away, the governments are now eyeing all the data tech companies collect.

Take the example of Bollywood. Everyone there uses WhatsApp believing that it is safe and private because of its End-2-End Encryption. Unfortunately, no. Data once collected and stored can never be safe. All WhatsApp chats, unless users take care, are stored:

– Inside WhatsApp
– Locally on phone (even the deleted chats are stored)
– In cloud backups with Google and Apple
– In two places: With the receiver and with the sender

This data, although encrypted, can be extracted once the private keys have been retrieved. And in most cases, private keys can be retrieved once a forensic lab has access to an unlocked phone.

Tech companies collect data because they have turned you into a target for 24X7 surveillance. This surveillance helps them profile you and sell advertisements. Here is another example: You buy a pair of shoes on Amazon India. Now, this is the record this purchase creates:

– Your purchase records on the Amazon app and Amazon servers, with all key details.
– Your purchase record with your bank or payment provider.
– Your purchase record with your phone company because you got a SMS on your phone detailing the transaction. By the way, this SMS is unencrypted and can be stolen through SIM cloning.
– Your purchase record with payment gateway (Visa, MasterCard etc).
– Your purchase record with your email service provider because you got an email from Amazon about it.
– Your purchase record on the phone, SMS, email from the merchant from whom you bought the item.
– And all these purchase records and their copies are stored locally on a couple of phones — of buyer and seller — as well as in cloud storage of tech companies.

For a user, it is impossible to delete this transaction record. Even if you delete it from your phone or your email account, and that too permanently, you cannot delete it from all the places where it has been stored. In fact, deleting is another lie that tech companies tell users. There is a difference between deleting and permanently deleting and even with permanently deleting, information doesn’t get deleted in our connected age.

Writing in his biography Permanent Record, this is why Snowden said, “Deletion is just a ruse, a figment, a public function, a not-quite-noble lie that computing tells you to reassure you and give you comfort.”

READ | Azaadi & Aryan Khan: Tareekh pe tareekh. Blame it on the British

This is the reason why many in Bollywood are seeing chats leaking, even some deleted chats. The whole world has been turned into a big surveillance operation by companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon. In their quest for more and more data to profile users they have been helped by financial transaction companies, banks, by telecom companies, and by thousands of app makers who have cut deals with them in lieu of user data. Every app, whether from a big company or small, makes it by design difficult for users to minimise collection of data, or to delete data once it has been collected.

“Our data wanders far and wide. Our data wanders endlessly,” writes Snowden. And it wanders because Facebook or Google want to show you the advertisement for all the single ladies looking for friendship in your area. The pervasive surveillance, data hoarding and ad-tracking through smartphones is disgustingly sick!

Or like Snowden writes in the Permanent Record, “Mass surveillance is now a never-ending census, substantially more dangerous than any questionnaire sent through the mail. All our devices, from our phones to our computers, are basically miniature census-takers that remember everything and forgive nothing.”

The happenings in Mumbai show that many in law-enforcement are now salivating at seeing all the data our phones collect. And the users of these phones are finally realising that they have been under surveillance for years. Like all of us.


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