Some Ramblings - CitizenFour (2014) by Srinivas Kanchibhotla
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'You fuckin' people... you have no idea how to defend a nation. All you did was weaken a country today, Kaffee. That's all you did. You put people's lives in danger.' - Colonel Jessup, 'A Few Good Men'

This was right around the time in mid 90s when General Motors launched the first ever real-time in-vehicle communication system, OnStar, which assisted the driver with everything from driving directions to roadside emergencies using satellite technology, all with a simple push of a button on the rearview mirror. This breakthrough technology was hailed by all and sundry as a driver's best friend, second only to man's best friend. It didn't take long however before the euphoria of someone constantly watching over the shoulder, looking out for any driving issues, and extending a helping hand readily died down. The vehicle constantly sent back the diagnostics of the vehicle while in operation to a remote operational site which used those to send feedback to the driver - fuel level low, clogged oil filter, dangerous tire pressure and such. It became a matter of just connecting the dots and before long the insurance industry got into the fray and started making inquiries, writing up reports about how it can use these remote diagnostics to assess (and predict) the driving patterns of the driver, in that, how many times has he gone over the posted speed limits, how is he maintaining the general condition of the vehicle, whether his turning practices are adherent to industry standards and such. And it wasn't a stretch to figure out how the insurance companies would raise the premiums on the vehicle, if the driver proved to be unsafe (read, not profitable), or worse, refuse to insure the vehicle at all. Citizen and human rights groups cried foul at this blatant cross-usage of data for commercial purposes citing gross misuse of private data. Howevermuch it made sense to the corporate world that data mined in one area should flow freely to other parts particularly if there could be money made there and it should in fact be the fundamental right in a capitalist world, information exchange, the overarching implications of such trading of personal data never bode well to the end customer. Pop came the question, what if other branches of Insurance companies, like, medical, wanted a share in that data pie, where they too could draw up conclusions about the habits of the driver (ex: how often is he driving the vehicle drunk) and make more money off it, either by increasing the premiums, or again, canceling his policy for good.

The phrase, Information Age, like Globalization, started off being a benign and an empowering concept. Why not? When information became the enabler of better life (the more information there is about something, the more informed a judgment or a decision could be about it, isn't it?), the world jumped on the bandwagon of coming up with new ways of sharing information....unmindful of the fact that whenever something is shared, there is always the chance/opportunity of the information being intercepted and being used for ways never intended by the sharing parties. With technology getting smarter by the day, the tools devised to sniff out information in the data being exchanged, store it to later use it either to make money off it (in true capitalist way) or assist in national security was just the natural evolution in the life of information. The funny thing is, this MO has been the same since the dawn of time, with kings employing spies to gather data, and later states transitioning into technological tools to essentially do the same job. So, when Private Bradley Manning of US military unleashed the treasure trove of data, with the help of WikiLeaks, containing the confidential diplomatic chatter of US embassies all around the globe, the content of those cables wasn't as much shocking as the manner of the leaks itself. Anyone who read spy/military fiction (particularly Tom Clancy's) was already privy to the fact that diplomats stationed in foreign countries gathered all manner of information relating to the host countries from a variety of sources - conversations, leaks and plain old bugging - and passed it back to the homeland which was later put to use to gaining an upper-hand in bi-lateral negotiations or brow-beating the opponent into submission. This was just common knowledge. And all that Julian Assange did was provide a conduit for the near-endless streams of private state data from Manning to reach the right print media, which accepted this manna with glee and went to town with it excoriating both its local administration and politicians as well as the American trangression of all diplomatic protocols. But, as said, this was no earth shattering surprise.

And then came along Edward Snowden, and the world shook. This is no longer a case of a country snooping on everything foreign to defend itself from adversaries stationed outside its geographical boundaries. This is a shocking case of US spying on its own citizenry employing tools that intercepted practically every mode of communication known to the modern man - phone, email, social media, online commercial transactions - collated all that humungous data creating profiles (metadata) by drawing patterns and conclusions essentially identifying potential enemies of the state. Or in Orwellian speak, the state became 'Thought Police' always on the lookout for 'thoughtcrimes' (which haven't been committed yet, but likely to be) and to connect the dots from the inception of the idea (of sedition) to the execution of it, all the little pieces of information right from checking out the flagged books in the library to making the incendiary searches on the internet, visiting banned sites and many such, became digital evidences later to be used in the court of law, (and, here is the kicker) should the suspecting citizen actually commit the crime against the state. And what if the person never acted upon his traitorous instinct at all? The data still existed without being erased waiting for him to make that one false move. How could an apparatus of this great a magnitude be ever built that (in Snowden's own words) could sift through millions of transactions every second refining its information to the finest degree to pop up potential crimes? Enter the nation's finest mathematicians, engineers and computer whiz-kids to build systems, that after a while, had a mind of their own and needed no further refinement from its creators. This is no science fiction. This is the future, and future is here. What reason could a nation have to profile its own subjects by violating all privacy laws and fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution? And US' magic word for all its security interests - 9/11.

To be fair, that for an enemy as amorphous as present day Islamic terrorism, conventional methods rarely could get the job done. How can the state protect itself from a potential terrorist who got brainwashed over the internet, remained dormant for a long period of time, and on receipt of the right signal activated himself and caused untold damage to the state in potentially hundreds of different ways? As the common saying that the police have to get it right every single time and the criminal has to get right just once, what other way can a state intercept or preempt imminent attacks other than by knowing about them well in advance? And how better to 'know' it than by plugging into the streams of information criss-crossing the airwaves, underwater cables, and telephone wires and collect, collate and create digital dossiers of potential targets? There has been a constant see-saw between security (state's right) and liberty (individual's right) right from pre-historic times. How far can a nation go (not the ability, but the legality) to protect itself? Can security trump (and trample) individualism? Are the interests of many greater than the victimization of one? These troubling questions at the heart of justice continue to crop up over different forms of government, from monarchy to democracy, spread over many many centuries. And there are no easy answers to any of those questions. If the state does not have the wherewithal to protect its citizens from all forms of aggression, and the if the state cannot build the apparatus or put together a mechanism to thwart even the slightest of threat, then it simply loses the right to rule over its citizens, as the first and foremost function of the state is providing security to its citizens, and everything simply comes next. So the complaint from Snowden's explosive leak is not about the state's duty to guarantee the same freedom whose loss is now bemoaned because of same the security apparatus that is aimed to protect it in the first place, but rather the state's extra constitutional authority to side step the same rules that it expects its citizen to follow and worse, the possibility to use the same information to overrule the role of individual in the greater interest of the state (which history again shows is the very way that fascists governments rule).

'CitizenFour' is an important documentary that goes beyond its perceived scope of unfolding the events surrounding Snowden's eight days of brief stay in Hong Kong holed up in a hotel room, revealing to renowned journalists the length and breadth of US' security apparatus' that is built over the foundations of mistrust, insecurity and paranoia towards its own subjects, ironically, all in the name of security. It throws a light on how even the heads of states are completely in the dark about what its security apparatus is even capable of, at first denying vehemently that such sweeping scope is just a figment of someone's imagination, and later begrudgingly acknowledging that such artificial intelligence indeed existed and some toes might have been stepped over for the greater good of the society. Ultimately, is Snowden (or Manning and many other whistleblowers who exposed the possible tyranny of the state) a hero, for sacrificing his own career and better life, now living in exile away from the comforts of his erstwhile life and far from his family, just to call to the attention of the world the ways and means of US' undercover security, or is he a traitor who just tipped the hand of his nation in the ongoing war on terror? As the mission statement of the format of documentary declares, it only reports, it is for the world to decide.

'They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.' - Benjamin Franklin.


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