It will take a long time for any reasoned and reasonable analysis of the 250,000 confidential cables sent by American diplomats and released by the whistleblower website Wikileaks. Understandably, the United States foreign policy establishment is hopping mad. Other than making public information the State Department would not want revealed, the incident also brings under the scanner the efficacy of security and confidentiality systems in the US administration. If nothing else, it will make prospective interlocutors and sources that much more cautious.
No wonder senior officials in Washington, DC, have responded with rage. Some have asked for the Wikileaks website to be shut down. John Kerry, chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a candidate for the presidency in 2004, has said, "The release of classified information under these circumstances is a reckless action which jeopardises lives by exposing raw, contemporaneous intelligence."
He is dead right. The release of raw intelligence data at any time — especially in the midst of two wars — is a diplomat's nightmare and a national government's worst-case scenario.
In India, the Niira Radia tapes offer a microcosm of the Wikileaks episode. Some 5,000 calls made or received by the corporate lobbyist and public relations representative were tapped by the Income Tax authorities. A little over 100 calls have made it to the public domain, either in full or in the form of segments of longer conversations.
The tumult about journalistic ethics, business allegiances of senior politicians and civil servants and corporations "fixing" ministries in the Union government is all around us. However, the issue of privacy has not been sufficiently considered. A conversation between two individuals — business tycoon and his consultant; lobbyist and (over)-friendly civil servant/MP/media person; source and journalist — is not usually fair game for public disclosure, never mind the scruples of those working the phones. Even so, the Radia tapes are with us and we have to live with them.
Indeed, whatever Senator Kerry may say, irrespective of the protests by the persons whose private conversations were published in newsmagazines (or made available as audio feed on websites), the fact is governments and public people are faced with a situation that is not going to go away.
No doubt Wikileaks has broken a series of laws, both in the US and other countries where its promoters are based. Similarly, if India had a robust judicial system that allowed quick redress for aggrieved individuals — and if it had an enlightened idea of privacy — the magazines that published the Radia tapes may have thought twice.
In both cases, legal action is unlikely to be taken or pursued in a rigorous, letter-of-the-law fashion. Wikileaks and the media outlets that have released the Radia tapes are working on the assumption that the attendant controversy, the hundreds of sub-plots and unalloyed speculation — Why did Saudi Arabia say X to the US about Iran? Which official in the US embassy in Y is a spy? Which journalist is on the take, which one will lose his job? Which MP in party Z receives money and instructions from one or the other tycoon? — and the embarrassment that institutions and individuals will encounter will drown out the privacy debate. It will make moving court and seeking an injunction (too late anyway) or pressing charges seem churlish and vindictive.
It is also unclear what a ban on Wikileaks will achieve. True, the website is in breach of the law and can expect to hear from government lawyers. Nevertheless, the simplicity with which technology now enables information to flow in and out of firewalls — used in every sense of the term — of governments and establishments makes it sobering to conclude that Wikileaks is only a symptom. Its methods are easily replicable.
At least in the case of Wikileaks security agencies and police prosecutors know whom to address the legal notices to. What would happen if a dissident (or mischievous or plain crazy) State Department official were to download confidential files and transfer them to his pen drive, then walk out and mail the pen drive to his wife's brother's father-in-law in Belarus and have the gentleman upload the files onto a new site created in an Internet café in Latvia? It would be possible to hide a paper/e-paper trail and the name of the website's creator and owner could be buried behind several screens and aliases. Alternatively, what if a non-mainstream, Iceland-based trendy-left website decides to hire a professional hacker in pursuit of what it believes is a legitimate story?
The case of the Radia tapes is analogous. The Income Tax authorities began monitoring the lady's mobile phone in 2008. However, the source of the current round of leaks is not the government but, as is understood, corporate rivals of some of Radia's clients. In turn, they have got the tapes (or some of the tapes) from officials in the Income Tax Office whom they have cultivated.
This leads us to two ancillary issues. First, the security of data in the government system is questionable. Most Indians have known this long enough anyway; as a society we don't place much store on notions of privacy. Yet, here one is not talking of accidental leaks. So-called secret information with government agencies is up for sale.
Second, in the India of the 1980s tapping telephones used to be a crude and difficult process that only the government could accomplish, usually by ordering a linesman to climb the telephone pole outside the target's house. Today, surveillance technology has proliferated. Mobile phones can be listened in on using devices that are available with several Union government agencies, some state governments and an unknown number of private persons or entities.
A few months ago, there was a furore about Nitish Kumar's phone being tapped by the Union government and transcripts of an innocuous conversation involving the Bihar chief minister were published in the newspapers. In actuality, Kumar was not being monitored. The story this columnist was told was downright bizarre.
In New Delhi, a highly-strung, power-drunk capital, junior functionaries of various government investigative agencies are given mobile-phone tapping devices, a car and an address. They are told to park themselves outside a particular office or residence and record and listen to calls being made by the mobile phone (or phones) inside.
However, the tapping devices are not number-specific. While driving from their office to the target address, the junior functionaries — the equivalent of police constables — could decide to test the instrument. They could decide to hear what the man on the cell phone in the next car at the traffic signal is saying. They could stop outside my residence (picked at random) and eavesdrop as I use my mobile phone to call my wife at her office and discuss dinner plans. As it happened, they stopped outside a government bungalow in central Delhi that had been allotted to Nitish Kumar and heard him discuss procedural matters with one of his bureaucrats.
At least this is government tapping. Private tapping is an altogether different story. Corporate houses resort to it — the Amar Singh tapes, released a few years ago and recording his chats with politicians, movie stars and businessmen, and the "Tata tapes", made public in 1997 after Nusli Wadia's calls were apparently tapped by a business adversary, were private sector initiatives. This technology is loose in the market and impossible to legislate. The government may clamp down on equipment vendors it knows of and force them to ban (or register) sales. Yet, what of equipment vendors who are unknown?
There are two ways of dealing with this phenomenon. The predictable one is to invest even more in encryption and tapping-proof and leak-resistant technology, in practically strip-searching every person working in the State Department (or anywhere) as he leaves in the evening and look for that damned pen drive or whatever. This process is expensive and cumbersome. It will inevitably lead to a ceaseless race, where the likes of Wikileak and its sources will innovate and governments and business corporations will strive to catch up and stay ahead.
The other way is to rethink the way we — or at least governments and public individuals and institutions — do business in this age of runaway information. This may not be the End of History, but it is certainly the End of Privacy. What does it mean for, for instance, secret archives and declassification time periods? Should the latter be shortened if not eliminated for certain categories of documents? Will really important information be passed on face-to-face, rather than on the phone or in an emailed cable? What will this do to timelines and communication costs?
We don't know the answers, but perhaps we should start pondering those questions.
Ashok Malik is a journalist writing on, primarily, Indian politics and foreign policy, and inflicting his opinion on readers of several newspapers for close to 20 years. He lives in Delhi, is always game for an Americano and can be contacted at email@example.com.